Four Reasons for Empty Grocery Shelves

Some are the same as the beginning of the pandemic, and others are new complications.

January 12, 2022

Empty Grocery Store Shelves

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Grocers are grappling with out of stocks, and the reasons for the shortfalls are the same as the early days of the pandemic, plus new problems, reports the Washington Post. Here are four reasons for the empty shelves.

Omicron: This one isn’t a surprise—the omicron variant is affecting retailers everywhere in the U.S. The rise in COVID-19 cases is creating more work for stores, including deep cleaning, masking and social distancing, while many employees are calling out sick because they have the virus or they need to quarantine.

Geoff Freeman, CEO of the Consumer Brands Association, told the Post that more employee absences were reported in the past two weeks than in all of 2020.

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

The grocer trade group has asked federal and state governments to be prioritized for COVID testing supplies, as well as flexibility with new federal vaccination and testing mandates. It’s hard for grocers to keep their stores stocked when operating stores with less than half of their normal workforce.

Winter: Recent bad weather in the U.S. has caused difficult road conditions and weather patterns that grocers aren’t used to seeing, according to a spokesperson with FMI, a food industry organization. Consumer psychology also comes into play during the winter months—people stock up out of habit when bad weather is coming, and if a customer sees low stock, it’s typical for them to buy two instead of one, just in case, says FMI.

Supply: Like in the early days of the pandemic, some municipalities have once again shut down factories and thus slowed orders for certain ingredients and food products for U.S. imports. Cargo volume at the Port of Los Angeles, which is the busiest port in the U.S., fell sharply in November compared with a year earlier.

Eating Habits: More households are eating at home due to reasons varying from inflation to surging omicron cases, which means that grocery stores are inundated with shoppers again.

Grocery sales rose over 8% in December, according to national retail sales tracker Mastercard SpendingPulse, and stores are still recovering from the impact. Also, in some cities, many restaurants were temporarily closed because of COVID-19 outbreaks among staff.

Inflation is also hurting consumers’ wallets with grocery prices rising 6.4% over the past 12 months ending in December, the largest increase since 2008.