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Grocers, food brands prepare for the new wave of coronavirus, bring back purchase limits



The latest wave of the coronavirus pandemic is bringing back purchase limits in grocery stores. This unhappy development is due to the anticipation that the approaching cold and flu season will bring a third wave of the virus, as some parts of the country are beginning to experience. Retailers are trying to avoid the kinds of empty shelves that shoppers saw during the initial outbreak of the pandemic.

In order to prevent hoarding or large purchases of specific items during a single shopping trip, many major retailers are limiting purchases. Items like paper goods and frozen foods are being limited for the first time since the spring. With people at home more because of lockdowns and social distancing measures, there is a renewed demand for items like paper towels, toilet paper, and frozen food for easy meals. New shortages of some items like spices and butter and other staple ingredients in cooking are being reported. Is anyone else besides me having flashbacks to trying to purchase regularly used products only to find stores out of stock with no alternative products to offer? Grocers are trying to avoid that now.

Kroger Co., the nation’s largest grocer, and Publix Super Markets Inc., a chain of more than 1,200 stores in the Southeast, reinstated limits on bath tissue and paper towels last week. Kroger also brought back limits on hand soap and disinfectant wipes. Recently, there has been some shortage of paper and cleaning products as coronavirus cases surge, said Kevin Hourican, chief executive of food-service distributor Sysco Corp.

“We’re on the cusp of the next uptick in major pandemic buying,” said Dave Kauder, vice president of merchandising at New Seasons Market LLC, which operates stores on the West Coast. Customers stocked up heavily on paper goods and cleaning products over the weekend, he added.

There is some optimism from retailers that hoarding will not be the problem it was in earlier months. By now, the thinking goes, consumers have fully stocked pantries and are prepared for potential shortages on the horizon. Limits are being placed on some purchases as precautionary measures. Some shortages are still with us, though. Cleaning wipes, for example, will continue to be in very short supply well into 2021. A surge in the sales of bleach is expected. An increase in the sales of face masks and immunity-boosting products are being reported.

Manufacturers and retailers have not fully recovered from the first wave of the pandemic. Supply inventories have been rebuilt but not fully replenished. Grocery stores are preparing for new demands by another wave of the pandemic along with the upcoming holidays. Holiday food shopping intersects this year with the preparations being made for more strict lockdowns. Retailers still aren’t receiving their full orders of baking items, soup, and other fast-selling products.

Some grocery store chains haven’t lifted initial restrictions. Some are going region to region, tailoring supplies with demands, and grocers have given priority to keeping shelves stocked with basic staples versus offering wide varieties of choices. In other words, you can buy your favorite brand of chips but maybe not your favorite flavor if it isn’t the top-selling one. Preparations for holiday cooking and baking has produced shortages because the rush came faster this year. People at home more often than usual, cooking most meals at home, has already kept suppliers busy. As a Southern cook, the potential for shortages in the butter supply is particularly troubling. Oh, no, not the butter! I kid. Kinda.

Butter supply, which typically gets tighter in the winter months when people cook more at home, is particularly squeezed this year, said Scott Crawford, chief merchandising officer at grocery delivery company Fresh Direct LLC. The company is securing new local and premium butter suppliers to avoid running out. Organic butter, in particular, has been harder to find because there are fewer producers, said Mr. Kauder of New Seasons.

In normal years, consumers stock up on frozen foods, meats, and dairy products as the weather changes and holidays approach. This year consumers are doing it earlier. Another factor to take into consideration – many people purchased a second freezer since the pandemic began in order to keep more frozen food.

According to the IRI CPG Demand Index, which measures weekly consumer spending, sales of frozen foods, including meals and snacks, jumped in grocery stores for the week ended Nov. 1 compared with a year ago.

Bob Nolan, head of analytics at Conagra Brands Inc., maker of Healthy Choice frozen meals and Birds Eye frozen vegetables, said the demand is partly driven by consumers filling up secondary freezers they bought during the pandemic. “Now those people have more capacity to store frozen food than they did in the spring,” he said.

Robinson Fresh, the produce division of logistics company C.H. Robinson, said it is working with retailers this winter to put inventory in multiple locations in case there is a surge in one area and less than expected in another.

“For years, we built a just-in-time supply chain. Now, we need a just-in-case one,” said Michael Castagnetto, president of Robinson Fresh.

Food suppliers have taken to heart lessons learned after the first wave of the pandemic. Investments in supply chain capabilities have increased as well as production capacity to accelerate production. More employees have been hired, too, by companies like Frito-Lay.

Frito-Lay, a subsidiary of PepsiCo., is stepping up its inventory levels in anticipation of elevated demand between Thanksgiving and the Super Bowl. While the holiday season is often a precursor for an uptick in inventory preparation, the snack company is increasing its system-wide inventory by 1.5 million cases, to meet the same needs from the first wave of COVID-19 in March.

“One thing we took away from that first wave is the leveraged data insights and capabilities we now have to prepare ourselves for any additional surge activity that we would see in the winter,” senior vice president of sales and chief consumer officer at Frito-Lay America Mike del Pozzo told FOX Business.

At the beginning of the pandemic, when demand spiked to unprecedented levels, Frito-Lay was forced to reduce 21% of its items, including some of its core brands like Lay’s Lightly Salted, Fritos Scoops Spicy Jalapeños and Doritos Salsa Verde.

The company made temporary cuts to deliver the volume of its most in-demand products and ensure availability everywhere for consumers. While 95% or more of paused items have since returned to the market, the chip company has taken precautionary measures to prevent any future interruption.

The lesson most of us learned from the first shortages back in the spring was to just stay prepared as much as possible. In our house, we replace items as they are used instead of letting the pantry supplies get low as we did pre-pandemic. We don’t hoard but we are prepared for shortages, should they occur in our area. It’s a lot like staying prepared for hurricane season year-round.

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