U.S. Grocery Store Shelves Are Empty. Here’s What’s Behind It.

·5 min read

ACROSS AMERICA — It’s a sight oddly reminiscent of the coronavirus pandemic’s early days. People in search of items such as cat food, heavy whipping cream, chicken breast and even cream cheese are heading to the grocery only to find shelves empty.

What gives? This time, shortages are being caused by a combination of factors including the fast-spreading omicron coronavirus variant and severe weather. Changing demand and consumer behavior also play a role.

All these factors only exacerbated ongoing supply chain struggles and labor shortages, just as retailers were learning to navigate the realities of shopping during a pandemic.

"All of the players in the supply chain ecosystem have gotten to a point where they have that playbook and they're able to navigate that baseline level of challenges," Jessica Dankert, vice president of supply chain at the Retail Industry Leaders Association, told The Associated Press. Right now, however, new complications are compounding that baseline.

Here’s what we know so far about what’s causing shortages on U.S. grocery store shelves.

Omicron

As the fast-spreading omicron coronavirus variant infects Americans at staggering rates, grocery stores are dealing with significant labor shortages as employees call out due to illness or quarantine.

In a call with food industry chief executives, Geoff Freeman, CEO of the industry organization Consumer Brands Association, said more employee absences were reported in the past two weeks than in all of 2020, The Washington Post reported.

“That’s remarkable,” he said during the call. “Throw on top of that being down 80,000 truck drivers nationally, and another 10 percent of workers being absent at food manufacturing facilities, and you’re putting a lot of pressure on the system all at one time.”

The omicron variant has also taken a toll on food production lines. Sean Connolly, the president and CEO of Conagra Brands, told investors last week that supplies from the company's U.S. plants will be constrained for at least the next month due to omicron-related absences, The AP reported.

Aside from the staggering number of employees calling out due to illness, the number of people who quit their jobs surged to 4.5 million in November.

The numbers suggest Americans are increasingly confident they can quit their jobs and find better opportunities elsewhere.

Winter Weather

Some areas of the country are facing shortages due in part to recent winter storms that snarled transportation routes and delayed shipments, according to a National Public Radio report.

Recent storms in Washington state closed major roads and slowed the shipping of food to states such as Alaska. Just after New Year’s Day, winter storms dumped more than a foot of snow across parts of the mid-Atlantic, making road conditions treacherous and travel difficult.

In Virginia, drivers rationed their gasoline and shared snacks and water while trapped on a 50-mile section of Interstate 95 paralyzed for more than 20 hours by a snowstorm. A number of grocery delivery trucks were also caught in delay.

Changing weather patterns also play a part, according to NPR.

As severe weather events worsen, growers are yielding less corn and soy to feed farm animals. The shortages are affecting the price and availability of meat, eggs, and dairy products, Phil Lempert, editor of the website SupermarketGuru.com, told NPR.

Supply Chain Issues

Supply chain issues have extended beyond U.S. ports. As omicron sweeps across the United States, workers at factories, ports, trucking companies and warehouses are falling ill as ongoing demand drives up shipping and fuel prices, The New York Times reported.

The variant is also delaying shipping times as countries such as China implement sweeping lockdowns and impact everything from imported foods to packaging printed overseas.

Truckers are also in short supply. In response, trucking companies are offering higher wages to attract new workers; however, the demand is far from being met, NPR reported.

Eating Habits Are Changing

As food prices and coronavirus cases rise, more Americans are eating at home. This means grocery stores are dealing with a spike in shoppers.

Grocery sales rose more than 8 percent in December, the Post reported. Stores are still recovering from the holiday surge as many continue to restock but struggle to keep shelves full.

In some cities, restaurants had to close temporarily due to coronavirus outbreaks among workers, which prompted even more families to eat at home in December.

Inflation has also influenced behavior as Americans opt to eat more at home rather than pay increased prices at their favorite restaurants.

Food prices rose 6.4 percent over the past 12 months ending in December, the largest increase since 2008, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics index of prices. Beef prices rose a staggering 20.9 percent.

Experts Uncertain On Duration

Experts are divided on how long grocery shopping will resemble a scavenger hunt.

Dankert of the Retail Industry Leaders Association thinks it’s a hiccup, she told The AP, and the country will soon settle back to more normal patterns. Supply chain headaches and labor shortages could last longer.

"You're not going to see long-term outages of products, just sporadic, isolated incidents — that window where it takes a minute for the supply chain to catch up," she told The AP.

But others aren't so optimistic.

Doug Baker, vice president of industry relations for FMI, told The AP it could take groceries and food companies a long time to figure out what customer buying patterns emerge even as the pandemic ebbs.

"We're going to be playing with that whole inventory system for several years to come," he said.

This article originally appeared on the Across America Patch