Holiday supply chain problems hit the beverage industry

POLAND - 2021/12/02: A photo of bottles of Coca-Cola soft drink seen displayed in a store. (Photo by Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
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  • Geoff Freeman
    American chief executive

The holidays tend to make Americans very, very thirsty. And that's a problem this year, with supply chain snarls hitting the beverage industry - from soda to energy drinks, booze to beer - especially hard. Things could get even tougher in the next couple months.

While typical grocery categories are experiencing 5% to 10% of products out of stock right now, beverage shortages are higher, with around 13% missing from shelves. Shortages have been showing up in waters, iced teas and soft drinks, as well as beer, hard seltzer and canned cocktails.

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"All the talk around the holidays is about what might be under the Christmas tree, but not enough attention is paid to what consumers are already dealing with," said Geoff Freeman, chief executive of the Consumer Brands Association, the national trade association for consumer packaged goods.

A shortage of bottles and cans is responsible for much of it, but trucking and shipping snarls, missing ingredients, labor woes and even freak weather are all contributing to shortages, leaving grocers scrambling to fill in the gaps. It's just the latest example of ongoing food supply problems that have shown up in a variety of sectors, wreaking havoc on prices and contributing to the highest inflation in three decades.

Video: How to buy gifts during a supply chain crisis

Freeman said the empty shelves reflect "demand unlike what we've seen in recent history running headfirst into problems with access to ingredients and materials."

The problems are certainly true for the world's largest beverage company, Coca-Cola, whose chief executive James Quincey has said repeatedly that consumers will see sporadic shortages on grocery shelves through 2022.

The company is seeing strong sales, but Quincey said supply chain problems are "a bit like whack-a-mole" during a recent third quarter earnings call. He described shipping, freight and labor problems; ingredient shortages; as well as freak and unexpected challenges - a plastics factory in Brazil bursting into flames or the rising cost of natural gas causing a global shortage of CO2, which gives soda its bubbles.

Many major beverage brands have reported similarly significant problems, according to Howard Telford, head of soft drinks research at Euromonitor International, a market research firm. Monster Beverage, which makes a line of energy drinks, reported shortages in aluminum cans in the United States and Europe last quarter, along with higher prices and delays from importing materials. PepsiCo has also been facing shortages in terms of packaging, Telford said, including running out-of-stock, particularly in Gatorade over the summer. Telford said a shortage of resin used in plastic packaging could be one of several issues contributing to this shortage.

Beverage companies have faced a different slate of obstacles compared to other food categories. The pandemic has changed the way people buy and drink everything from bubbly water to Diet Coke, which has proved challenging for beverage companies, especially when it comes to packaging.

When restaurants and bars shut down last year, bottlers got through it by moving away from fountain and single-serve drinks and focusing instead on multipacks and larger-format packages like 2-liter bottles, things people loaded up on at the grocery store to drink at home.

Beverage companies focused on core brands and flavors, cutting back on the total number of drinks they produced, so they could meet a surge in customers stocking up at grocery stores. But when Americans stopped staying home so much, re-engaging with the wider world in the summer months - and faster than expected in some areas - those changes prompted a huge rise in demand for "immediate consumption" packaging, Telford said. Fountain drinks and single-serve containers were red hot again.

"I've never seen a year where the overall effort is as high to get product out," said Bill Creelman, founder of Spindrift Beverage Co., which makes a national line of sparkling waters infused with real juice. Creelman admits that in recent months, grocery stores have run out of some kinds of Spindrift, when demand outstripped supply. But there are some odd reasons for tight supply.

"When vaccines needed to be moved by refrigerated trucks, overnight refrigerated trucks were not available or were more expensive," said Creelman, who transports fresh fruit from farms in refrigerated trucks as ingredients for his Spindrift flavors. "Overnight, our truck prices doubled. There's a trickle-down effect, of us not always having what we want, and the just-in-time nature of our supply chain."

Still, one of the biggest headaches for Creelman and many others is the containers in which beverages are packaged - in this case, cans.

"Like everyone else, we're scratching and clawing for as much as we can get," he said.

Nearly 75% of all new beverages launched this year were packaged in aluminum cans, compared to 30% to 40% of beverages over the last five years, so more companies are fighting for a limited supply, Credit Suisse equity analyst Curt Woodworth wrote in an analyst report on the aluminum industry. Cans are sold out in North America over the next 24 to 36 months, and supply may not catch up to demand until 2025 or 2026, he wrote.

While beverage producers are struggling with all of these issues, it's grocery store owners and workers who have to explain the empty shelves to customers.

"We are seeing waves of products out of stock, then back in stock, while other products are just out of stock," said Cullen Gilchrist, chief executive of Union Kitchen in Washington, D.C. "Sometimes it's sizes or formats - bottles versus cans, glass versus plastic - that are out of stock, or just some flavors."

The challenge, Gilchrist said, is how to arrange the shelves and plan the layout of store aisles when it's not clear what is going to show up. He said he's seen between 25% and 50% of orders not coming in, or coming in short, which forces his staff to hustle to rearrange and close up those gaps.

To avoid supply shortages, some companies are trying to get creative. Casamara Club, a small nonalcoholic "leisure soda" company in Detroit, has been stymied in getting drinks out the door because of delayed deliveries of glass bottles from China, said founder Jason LaValla. Now he is in the process of moving some of his beverages from glass bottles to cans.

"Our last bottling delay caused us to go out of stock for a full month," LaValla said. "That's a whole month of lost sales, and if you add that up, we are probably down about 15% in revenue because of not being able to fill orders."

Glass shortages and delays, coupled with ingredient shortages and more delays, have meant that Casamara Club has had to raid their marketing budget to spend more on stockpiling ingredients like chinotto extract, an Italian citrus, for fear of running out and not being able to make drinks like their Amaro club soda.

Scott Harris at Catoctin Creek Distilling in Virginia has had a similar experience. One of his two main rye whiskey bottle types has disappeared. Plus, it has taken as long as five months to get corks from Portugal, so they've had to make do with an emergency purchase of plastic corks.

Tonya Donato, co-founder of Mother Kombucha in St. Petersburg, Fla., said she's also struggled with the same supply chain problems as other beverage companies with a lack of bottles and cans, ingredients going missing or needing more lead time and not enough truckers.

But she also sees an upside in the beverage aisle, for new or smaller companies like hers. She's been able to sell more turmeric ginger lemonade kombucha, seizing on an opportunity to fill "humongous holes" in grocery store shelves.

"I've seen smaller beverage brands on LinkedIn saying, 'Hey, if you're a grocery category manager and you have holes on your shelves, call us,' " she said. "Because so many big beverage companies can't keep product on the shelves - I'm talking major brands like Topo Chico and Perrier - we've gotten more orders and been able to expand into more stores."

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