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January 14, 2022

Grocery store food shortages in Philly region could be compounded by impending winter storm

Supply chain issues, labor shortages and the COVID-19 omicron surge already have left many supermarket shelves bare. Snow, sleet and frigid weather this weekend will pack an extra punch

Business Weather
supermarket Shortages Winter Weather Sarah Frank/for PhillyVoice

At a Giant supermarket in Blue Bell, Montgomery County, the milk shelves were completely wiped out recently, a sign of the ongoing shortages facing grocery stores in the region and U.S. The winter storm this weekend is likely to make these issues worse for shoppers and retailers.

Routine trips to the grocery store in the era of COVID-19 have proven to be frustrating experiences for many shoppers who find themselves staring at sad, empty displays that have been picked clean of food.

Much has been reported in recent weeks about the extent of supply-chain and labor issues that continue to disrupt food retailers at a time when the public is leaning on these businesses more than in years past.

The Philadelphia area was fortunate last year to avoid any significant or frequent snow storms, which result in runs on supermarkets even during normal times. Over the next few days, as Philadelphia prepares for freezing temperatures and nasty weather lasting into Monday, grocery stores and convenience stores in the region are likely to see the challenge of keeping their shelves stocked compounded. 

Alex Baloga, president of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, ties a lot of the industry's issues to the difficulty of keeping up with changes in consumer behavior.

"The increase in home consumption has an effect on all of this," Baloga said. "From year to year, there was a little bit more than an 8% increase in grocery sales – overall supermarket sales. That creates further strains on the system. Then on top that, you have the weather issue exacerbating the issue even further. Weather can have an effect on the products themselves. Produce can be impacted, obviously from deep frost or weather-related issues."

In the years before the pandemic, grocery stores typically would have about 5-10% of their items out of stock at any given time. That has crept up closer to 15% early this year, Consumer Brands Association President and CEO Geoff Freeman told USA Today.

Shortages have hit a wide range of products beyond produce, meat and dairy. Shoppers across the country have had trouble finding items like baby formula, pet food, cream cheese, international foods, aluminum foil, chicken tenders and craft beer — something Eagles fans should consider while preparing for Sunday's big playoff game.

Baloga explained that consumers are having to take a flexible mindset into supermarkets and be prepared to make adjustments to their shopping lists. Even if products are available, many stores are placing limits on quantities customers can buy, including some stores in the Philadelphia area that have been doing so for a few months now. 

"I think the main thing is patience," Baloga said. "Patience especially with the associates working in the stores and trying to get the product stocked as quickly as possible. Don't overbuy. Keep your normal shopping schedule. That will go a long way in helping. You may not see exactly what you're looking for, but there may be something else that you could substitute."

The shortages seen across the country don't necessarily stem from a lack of goods to bring to the market. They're caused more by supply chain challenges in transport logistics and labor, as well as scarcity of raw materials and packaging.

I think the main thing is patience. Patience especially with the associates working in the stores and trying to get the product stocked as quickly as possibly. Don't overbuy. Keep your normal shopping schedule."
–Alex Baloga, Pa. Food Merchants Association

"The product is there – it's getting it to the store and on the shelves," Baloga said. "That is the issue."

COVID-19 outbreaks and impacts overseas continue to carry over into the U.S., beginning with getting imported goods inland from coastal ports. A long-standing shortage of truckers slows regional distribution and disrupts the inventory and workflow of retailers.

The increased demand among consumers is what pushes the problem over the edge for grocery stores that have too few workers to handle it.

"You have to update processes and procedures in order to deal with the influx in customers and orders and online click-and-collect, with delivery and everything else," Baloga said. "You have to be able to have enough people to operate, and do so in a way that's as safe and efficient as possible. It's more than just putting people in place."

A spokesperson for Giant, one of the region's biggest supermarket chains, said customers should be prepared for possible shortages this weekend and in the weeks ahead, especially when snow is in the forecast. The historic demand for groceries is just a part of the problem.

"Many other factors like ongoing labor shortages, limited availability of raw ingredients, freight and packaging constraints, and unpredictable weather events are beyond our control," the spokesperson said. "It's a fluid situation and one we are monitoring closely. We continue to remain in close contact with our suppliers and are working to bring in alternate products, but it is possible customers may find a particular brand or variety is unavailable due to the these challenges."

During a corporate earnings call this week, Albertsons' CEO Vivek Sankaran, whose company owns Acme Markets locally, said that the industry is doing its best to adapt.

"I think as a business, we've all learned to manage it," Sankaran said. "We've all learned to make sure that the stores are still very presentable, give the consumers as much choice as we can get."

The weather forecast for the Philadelphia region calls for frigid temperatures through the weekend, with snow arriving late Sunday night turning to sleet and then to rain as temperatures rise into early afternoon Monday. There is expected to be about an inch of snow in the city and a little bit more in the suburbs to the north and west.

The timeline of the winter storm points to a lot of grocery shopping on Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning before the Eagles game.

There's a good chance shoppers in the region will get a look at the effect winter weather is having on stores while the industry-wide challenges persist.

"I think the key is to understand that businesses and retailers, their associates especially, are working as hard and as fast as they possibly can to get the product and to provide what people are looking for. It's just a very difficult and challenging time," Baloga said.

It may take some time before this situation starts to improve.

"We can't predict the future, but as best as I think you can estimate, it's going to continue for at least the near-term," Baloga said. "When it lets up remains to be seen."