Why Are Some Groceries Still So Hard to Find During Covid?

At the beginning of the pandemic, it was nearly impossible to find toilet paper, cleaning supplies or canned soup. Five months later, supplies of those goods are recovering, according to data from market-research firm IRI. But shelves remain generally emptier than they were before the pandemic, and it could get worse before it gets better.

As Covid-19 cases continue to rise in certain states, grocers are reporting a new increase in staples purchases that could lead to scarcity. The even-stronger demand for items such as baking ingredients and paper towels has made it tough for manufacturers to produce the items fast enough to keep shelves full.

“In-stock conditions at retailers are much better than two months ago but not anywhere where we would like them to be,” said Kellogg Co. Chief Executive Steve Cahillane.

Still Spare

Manufacturers of food, beverages, paper products and cleaning supplies ramped up production in the spring to help grocers get back in shape. During the peak shopping spree at the end of March, stores ran out of 13% of their items on average. Now, roughly 10% of items remain out of stock, compared with a normal range of 5% to 7% before the pandemic.

That might not seem significant, but leaving shelves 90% full for half a year would cost the supermarket industry some $10 billion in lost revenue, according to research from trade associations.

For grocery shoppers, it means that someone with 20 items on their list would be out of luck on two of them. Shopper surveys have shown that if people can’t find what they are looking for, they will try a different store, and the retailer risks losing that customer for good.

Weekly stock availability by department and product

TOTAL

NONEDIBLE

TOTAL

EDIBLE

100%

95%

5%-7% average

pre-pandemic

out-of-stock

range

93%

91%

88%

March

August*

March

August*

Most dramatic drops in products

Weeks ended March 22 and March 29

Some aisles have made a comeback in recent weeks.

OVER-THE-

COUNTER

MEDICINE

FROZEN

FRUITS AND

VEGETABLES

COOKIES AND

CRACKERS

PAPER

PRODUCTS

LAUNDRY

DAIRY

92

93

90

89

87

78

Lowest in-stock: 40%

includes paper towels and toilet paper

Other products remain hard to find as the industry struggles to keep up with demand.

OFFICE,

SCHOOL

SUPPLIES

REFRIG-

ERATED

DOUGH

VITAMINS,

WEIGHT LOSS

HOUSEHOLD

CLEANING

COFFEE

AND TEA

BREAKFAST

88

88

88

88

87

82

FROZEN MEAT,

POULTRY AND

SEAFOOD

HOUSEHOLD

PLASTICS,

STORAGE

PEST

CONTROL

FROZEN

MEALS

CANNED

VEGETABLES

BARBEQUE

85

84

80

80

66

66

Weekly stock availability by department and product

TOTAL

NONEDIBLE

TOTAL

EDIBLE

100%

95%

5%-7% average

pre-pandemic

out-of-stock

range

93%

91%

88%

March

August*

March

August*

Most dramatic drops in products

Weeks ended March 22 and March 29

Some aisles have made a comeback in recent weeks.

OVER-THE-

COUNTER

MEDICINE

FROZEN

FRUITS AND

VEGETABLES

COOKIES AND

CRACKERS

PAPER

PRODUCTS

LAUNDRY

DAIRY

92

93

90

89

87

78

Lowest in-stock: 40%

includes paper towels and toilet paper

Other products remain hard to find as the industry struggles to keep up with demand.

OFFICE,

SCHOOL

SUPPLIES

REFRIG-

ERATED

DOUGH

VITAMINS,

WEIGHT LOSS

HOUSEHOLD

CLEANING

COFFEE

AND TEA

BREAKFAST

88

88

88

88

87

82

FROZEN MEAT,

POULTRY AND

SEAFOOD

HOUSEHOLD

PLASTICS,

STORAGE

PEST

CONTROL

FROZEN

MEALS

CANNED

VEGETABLES

BARBEQUE

85

84

80

80

66

66

Weekly stock availability by department and product

TOTAL

NONEDIBLE

TOTAL

EDIBLE

100%

95%

5%-7% average

pre-pandemic

out-of-stock

range

93%

91%

88%

March

August*

March

August*

Most dramatic drops in products

Weeks ended March 22 and March 29

Some aisles have made a comeback in recent weeks.

OVER-THE-

COUNTER

MEDICINE

FROZEN

FRUITS AND

VEGETABLES

COOKIES AND

CRACKERS

PAPER

PRODUCTS

LAUNDRY

DAIRY

92

93

90

89

87

78

Lowest in-stock: 40%

includes paper towels and toilet paper

Other products remain hard to find as the industry struggles to keep up with demand.

OFFICE,

SCHOOL

SUPPLIES

REFRIG-

ERATED

DOUGH

VITAMINS,

WEIGHT LOSS

HOUSEHOLD

CLEANING

COFFEE

AND TEA

BREAKFAST

88

88

88

88

87

82

FROZEN MEAT,

POULTRY AND

SEAFOOD

HOUSEHOLD

PLASTICS,

STORAGE

PEST

CONTROL

FROZEN

MEALS

CANNED

VEGETABLES

BARBEQUE

85

84

80

80

66

66

Weekly stock availability

by department and product

5%-7% average pre-pandemic out-of-stock range

TOTAL

NONEDIBLE

TOTAL

EDIBLE

100%

95%

93%

91%

88%

March

August*

March

August*

Most dramatic drops in products

Weeks ended March 22 and March 29

Some aisles have made a comeback in recent weeks.

OVER-THE-

COUNTER

MEDICINE

PAPER

PRODUCTS

LAUNDRY

93

90

78

Lowest in-stock: 40%

includes paper towels and toilet paper

FROZEN

FRUITS AND

VEGETABLES

COOKIES AND

CRACKERS

DAIRY

92

89

87

Other products remain hard to find as the industry struggles to keep up with demand.

OFFICE,

SCHOOL

SUPPLIES

VITAMINS,

WEIGHT LOSS

HOUSEHOLD

CLEANING

88

88

82

HOUSEHOLD

PLASTICS,

STORAGE

PEST

CONTROL

BARBEQUE

80

66

66

REFRIG-

ERATED

DOUGH

COFFEE

AND TEA

BREAKFAST

88

88

87

FROZEN MEAT,

POULTRY AND

SEAFOOD

CANNED

VEGETABLES

FROZEN

MEALS

85

84

80

*Week ended Aug. 2 are estimates.

Source: IRi

Manufacturers and retailers are focused on making, delivering and stocking their top-selling items. That can lead to out-of-stocks of niche or seasonal items, such as barbecue tools.

Other aisles have less stock because the sector simply can’t make enough. For instance, flour mills are behind on deliveries despite boosting production by as much as 40%.

As increases in Covid-19 cases cause states to pull back their reopening plans, grocery makers and retailers say demand is ticking up and they have little extra stock to spare.

“As soon as you saw that big states were having an issue, we absolutely saw an increase in orders immediately,” B&G Foods Inc. Chief Executive Ken Romanzi said.

B&G Foods, which makes Green Giant canned and frozen vegetables, said it blew through its inventory in the spring and is making as much as possible but hasn’t been able to stock up on extras to prepare for another wave of shutdowns. Other manufacturers such as Kimberly-Clark Corp., Campbell Soup Co. and General Mills Inc. have also said they haven’t been able to rebuild inventories because of the strong demand.

Sticker Shock

Prices for food and household goods also surged during the hardest-hit months of the pandemic because manufacturers and retailers dramatically cut back on discounts. Instead of 2-for-1 deals to encourage people to buy more, they implemented purchase limits on hot items such as pasta and paper towels.

Retailers say promotions have picked up again this summer, helping average price increases slow from May, according to IRI data.

Overall, store prices remain about 5% higher on average than a year ago, IRI says. Typically, inflation would result in a roughly 2% increase.

Consumer goods prices, change from a year earlier

NONEDIBLE PRODUCTS

EDIBLE PRODUCTS

5.3

5%

4.2

3.4%

3.3

Prices normally

fluctuate between

1%-2% year over year

1.8

1.0

0

Jan. 1-Feb. 23

Feb. 24-March 22

March 23-July 12

Notable increases

REFRIG-

ERATED

MEATS

PAPER

PRODUCTS

HOUSEHOLD

CLEANING

PERSONAL

CLEANSING

CANNED

VEGETABLES

BAKING

11.3

10%

9.6

9.5

8.4

8.0

8.1

7.6

7.1

6.1

5

4.2

3.2

3.0

2.5

1.9

2.2

1.8

0.1

0

–1.4

Notable decreases

GROOMING

SUPPLIES

SPORTS/ENERGY

DRINKS

5%

2.1

1.6

1.1

0

–3.2

–3.0

–5.7

Consumer goods prices, change from a year earlier

NONEDIBLE PRODUCTS

EDIBLE PRODUCTS

5.3

5%

4.2

3.4%

3.3

Prices normally

fluctuate between

1%-2% year over year

1.8

1.0

0

Jan. 1-Feb. 23

Feb. 24-March 22

March 23-July 12

Notable increases

REFRI-

GERATED

MEATS

PAPER

PRODUCTS

HOUSEHOLD

CLEANING

PERSONAL

CLEANSING

CANNED

VEGETABLES

BAKING

11.3

10%

9.6

9.5

8.4

8.0

8.1

7.6

7.1

6.1

5

4.2

3.2

3.0

2.5

1.9

2.2

1.8

0.1

0

–1.4

Notable decreases

GROOMING

SUPPLIES

SPORTS/ENERGY

DRINKS

5%

2.1

1.6

1.1

0

–3.2

–3.0

–5.7

Consumer goods prices, change from a year earlier

NONEDIBLE PRODUCTS

EDIBLE PRODUCTS

5.3

5%

4.2

3.4%

3.3

Prices normally

fluctuate between

1%-2% year over year

1.8

1.0

0

Jan. 1-Feb. 23

Feb. 24-March 22

March 23-July 12

Notable increases

REFRI-

GERATED

MEATS

PAPER

PRODUCTS

HOUSEHOLD

CLEANING

PERSONAL

CLEANSING

CANNED

VEGETABLES

BAKING

11.3

10%

9.6

9.5

8.4

8.0

8.1

7.6

7.1

6.1

5

4.2

3.2

3.0

2.5

1.9

2.2

1.8

0.1

0

–1.4

Notable decreases

GROOMING

SUPPLIES

SPORTS/ENERGY

DRINKS

5%

2.1

1.6

1.1

0

–3.2

–3.0

–5.7

Consumer goods prices,

change from a year earlier

NONEDIBLE PRODUCTS

EDIBLE PRODUCTS

5.3

5%

4.2

3.4%

3.3

1.8

1.0

0

Jan. 1-Feb. 23

Prices normally

fluctuate between

1%-2% year over year

Feb. 24-March 22

March 23-July 12

Notable increases

PAPER

PRODUCTS

PERSONAL

CLEANSING

HOUSEHOLD

CLEANING

11.3

9.6

8.4

8.0

7.6

7.1

3.0

2.5

1.9

REFRIG-

ERATED

MEATS

CANNED

VEGETABLES

BAKING

9.5

8.1

6.1

4.2

3.2

2.2

1.8

0.1

–1.4

Notable decreases

GROOMING

SUPPLIES

SPORTS/ENERGY

DRINKS

2.1

1.6

1.1

0

–3.0

–3.2

–5.7

Note: Data measures weekly changes in consumer purchases, by dollar sales, against the year-ago period across departments including fixed and random weight products, grocery aisle and retail formats.

Source: IRi

A few categories are offering more discounts than usual. Grooming-supply companies, for instance, are trying to boost sales because people have stopped prioritizing their appearance regularly as they aren’t going to work or many social events. Sports and energy drinks also upped their deals during the peak of the pandemic when gyms were closed and people weren’t going to convenience stores as much.

Down at the Factory

Total U.S. manufacturing slowed during the pandemic as nonessential businesses were shut down. Factories making food and other items for grocery stores increased their capacity by anywhere from 10% to 40%. However, those producing large quantities for restaurants, schools and hotels reduced their output if they couldn’t switch to making retail-sized products.

In the end, factories making food, paper products and cleaning supplies reported significantly less disruption because of the pandemic than industries such as autos and appliances.

Related Video

Will the coronavirus pandemic lead to long-term changes in how we shop for food? To better understand the challenges facing grocery stores, WSJ’s Alexander Hotz spoke with an industry insider, a store owner and a Walmart executive.

Write to Annie Gasparro at [email protected] and Stephanie Stamm at [email protected]

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