Sonoma County shoppers should expect less variety of foods at grocers months beyond pandemic
It has been a month since an initial wave of panicked shoppers overwhelmed grocery stores amid the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. But local markets are still struggling to keep shelves fully stocked with food.
If there’s no shortage, as grocers and food supply experts insist, why are many items still so difficult to find?
The answer is more complicated than just panic buying or hoarding. With most people stuck at home, shopping habits have changed dramatically. And that’s put a strain on a food supply chain ill-equipped to handle rapid fluctuations in demand of homebound consumers and a store workforce on the front lines of the area outbreak.
“It’s definitely throwing things out of whack,” said Joe Butwill, manager of Pacific Market in Santa Rosa. “The system is not built for everyone to be home baking.”
While hoarding is still an issue for certain products - namely eggs, cleaning products and toilet paper - the overall effect of the distressed supply channels isn’t for the most part widespread food shortages, local grocers say, but it’s less choice on store shelves.
“Selection is varying at our stores delivery by delivery,” said Michael Moody, a grocery buyer for Oliver’s Markets.
Sonoma County grocers and supermarkets have begun to rebound from the crush of shoppers last month. The difficulty now is meeting the demands of customers stockpiling weeks’ worth of food to prepare at home.
During the week of March 16 when county public health officials announced orders to mainly stay at home other than essential errands, total sales at Oliver’s area market locations jumped more than 50% compared with the same week last year, according to the company. Those numbers have retreated as shoppers have filled their pantries. Oliver’s customers, though, are still buying twice as much as usual, in half the number of total trips to the stores.
One of them is Billy Headington of Santa Rosa, who used to stop by the Oliver’s in west Santa Rosa almost daily. Now, he tries to keep it to once a week.
While shoppers like Headington are making fewer trips to buy food, they’re filling shopping carts with much larger quantities of packaged and nonperishable goods, according to a report by market research firm SPINS. That includes pasta, soup, frozen vegetables, packaged meat, as well as staple ingredients flour, eggs and dairy products, thanks in part to an increased interest in home baking during the shutdown.
That means grocers remain relatively well stocked with fresh meat and produce. But they are scrambling to find alternatives for many standby packaged items that continue to sell out quickly.
“Meat, produce, deli, bakery - there’s plenty of food,” Oliver’s buyer Lawrence Jacobs said. “But if you want to go get Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup or chicken noodle, good luck right now.”
The demand spike for those products is putting a crunch on food distributors that supply goods to grocers. They rely on sophisticated computer modeling to plan food deliveries based on what stores expect to sell each day, said Dave Heylen, a vice president with the California Grocers Association.
During disasters like a fire or flood, distributors typically can redirect shipments to affected areas, Heylen said. A viral pandemic, however, presents new challenges.
“What’s unique about this situation is that it’s nationwide, so you can’t pull from anywhere else,” he said.
As food distributors adjust to this new reality, they’ve had to reallocate inventory to ensure grocers receive enough product.
“As a smaller store, I receive less shipments during the week, and I’m getting nowhere near what I’m ordering,” said Butwill, the Pacific Market store manager. Although his recent orders have been significantly fuller than in early March.
If there’s no shortage of food, and people are preparing more of their meals at home since restaurants are closed, it begs the question: Why can’t distributors just reroute deliveries of items like milk and eggs from restaurants to grocery stores?
It’s not that simple, said Amy Cramer, owner of Dairy Delivery, a distributor in Penngrove for stores including Oliver’s and Petaluma Market.
“The supply issue isn’t about the raw material. It’s about packaging and being able to get items processed,” Cramer said.
Restaurant and grocery store deliveries are often funneled through separate food supply chains with different drivers and warehouses. While grocers have been able to buy some food meant for restaurants, it has been complicated by many restaurant suppliers scaling back operations. Meanwhile, grocery distributors like Dairy Delivery are running at capacity and often can’t take on any extra inventory.