At a Food Lion in Williamsburg, Virginia, shoppers scan the aisles to find numerous sparsely stocked shelves. Basic items like milk, meat, lettuce, bread and pet food are in short supply. There’s no angel hair pasta left, and there isn't a single can of Friskies or Fancy Feast to be found.
One exasperated woman calls home to inform her family that she still can't find 2% milk. She'll try again tomorrow.
Product shortages are impacting grocery stores throughout the region once again. In another flashback to 2020, the dreaded empty shelves have returned, and experts say Covid and persistent supply chain problems are to blame.
"The pandemic has transformed almost every aspect of the food retail industry – from the way consumers shop for groceries and consume their meals to how food is grown, produced and transported to supermarket shelves, to our ability to staff our stores and serve our communities," said Heather Garlich, senior vice president of communications and marketing for the Food Industry Association.
The low inventory problem is widespread and isn't confined to any particular chain. Early Friday morning, Harris Teeter sent out an email to announce there will be no e-VIC specials – usually sent out by email every Friday – for loyalty customers this week.
The supply chain woes, according to Garlich, can be attributed to the convergence of multiple factors. Existing labor and transportation shortages have been exacerbated by the sheer number of people getting sick by the omicron variant, and recent extreme weather events, including snow and ice storms, have caused further strain.
The result is significant delivery delays. Many grocers are also facing staffing shortages of their own as workers call out sick, making it even more difficult to keep shelves stocked.
Garlich emphasized that grocery stores are often blindsided by these disruptions, and they’re doing the best they can under the circumstances. Product shortages can be hard to predict because they're often inconsistent and vary from one region to the next, she said.
High consumer demand is also playing a key role. Essential grocery item sales rose by nearly 50% when the pandemic started, according to research conducted by the Food Industry Association. That number has remained consistent as people cook more of their own meals at home, so any unexpected hiccups in the supply chain can have dramatic impacts.
Shortages are unfortunately contributing to higher prices, too. Earlier this week, a U.S Department of Labor report showed that inflation is up by 7% compared to last year, the highest increase in 40 years.
"This report underscores that we still have more work to do, with price increases still too high and squeezing family budgets," President Joe Biden said in a statement Wednesday.
On a positive note, those empty shelves are primarily being caused by logistical issues rather than a true shortage of products. While there's ample food in the supply chain, the current conditions are reportedly delaying lead times by anywhere between eight to 12 weeks.
"The good news is that there is a healthy supply of food in the system, and food retailers are working closely with their manufacturing partners to get shelves restocked as quickly as possible so consumers can find the products they love," she said.
There have also been no reports of toilet paper shortages so far.
What you can do
Industry experts say consumers should expect product shortages to linger throughout much of 2022 as the pandemic wears on. But the Food Industry Association – which works to keep the grocery supply chain strong – offered several recommendations for shoppers navigating product shortages and higher prices:
Plan out meals as far in advance as possible. Meal planning reduces food waste and can save money by allowing you to buy in bulk and purchase only what you need.
Consider purchasing grocery store brand items, which are often just as flavorful but cost less than brand name products.
Download your grocers' app so you can get alerts about sales, coupons or other deals when they're available. Online grocery shopping apps can also be helpful. Even if you're planning to shop in person, some apps allow you to see updated prices before you head to the store. That can help you predict costs and plan out what to buy ahead of time.