Grocery stores across the Washington region, as in other areas around the country and around the world, have experienced a spate of shortages and delays in restocking shelves, leaving many shoppers frustrated. Grocery stores and food service organizations attribute the problem to the surging omicron variant of the coronavirus and last week’s winter storms, on top of preexisting global supply chain issues.
“There are several challenges all retailers are facing at the moment that have impacted our ability to execute our business to our normal standards,” a Giant Food spokesman wrote in a statement. “Most significantly, the prolonged pandemic and last week’s weather has caused continued strain on our supply chain, but our Giant teams are working with our manufacturing partners to replenish shelves as quickly as possible.”
Shoppers said they have seen shortages at most major grocery stores in the region. Harris Teeter, Safeway, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods did not immediately respond to questions about stock challenges.
Which parts of the country have been left with empty shelves depends on weather and coronavirus transmission levels, said Doug Baker, vice president of industry relations at FMI, a food industry association. Last week’s snowstorm, for instance, caught much of the Washington region unprepared, and obstacles such as the shutdown of I-95 made it difficult to get groceries into stores.
“Anything that disrupts travel along the way is going to have an impact on a particular area,” Baker said. “Certain parts of the country, they’re not having these issues because they’re not impacted by any of those weather-related supply chain challenges, and maybe they’re not experiencing the omicron surge the same way another state is experiencing it.”
Baker said shortages are common in January as stores restock after Thanksgiving and Christmas, the two biggest “eating” holidays of the year. But with this year’s added challenges, he said, he doesn’t anticipate reaching a point of normalcy while shopping until the second half of the year.
“It’s going to take us a while,” Baker said. “The supply chain holds a lot of food. There’s a lot of food out there, but it takes a while to move it from one point to another.”
Over the weekend, residents began posting photos of empty shelves and picked-through produce on social media, community pages and forums, aggravated that they couldn’t start the week with freshly stocked fridges.
Cynthia Snyder, 65, went to the Giant Food by her home in North Cleveland Park in the District, and was shocked to find rows of empty produce.
“It was utterly shocking,” Snyder said. “There was not one onion, not one leaf of lettuce.”
So, Synder got what she could at Giant before heading to a Whole Foods, where she said she was able to buy most things, though there was still some scarcity.
Andersson, who also couldn’t find eggs at her Giant location, said she would probably stop by BestWorld Supermarket, a smaller grocery store in Mount Pleasant, on her way home.
“I feel like smaller ones tend to have groceries, though it’s more expensive,” she said.
Campbell Burns, vice president of Streets Market, an independently owned grocery store in the District, Maryland and Virginia, said its 11 locations hadn’t experienced the same widespread shortages he was hearing about at some of the larger chain stores.
The snow last week caused some delays, Burns said, but being independent gave Streets the flexibility to work with other producers and bring food into stores.
“Not just us but for all independent grocers, this is where we shine,” Burns said.
Still, some members of the National Grocers Association, a trade group representing independent grocers, have been experiencing the same ongoing supply chain and labor shortage issues during the pandemic as their corporate counterparts. Many member grocers have reported working with less than half of their staff, NGA communications director Jim Dudlicek wrote in an email.
“While there is plenty of food in the supply chain, we anticipate consumers will continue to experience sporadic disruptions in certain product categories as we have seen over the past year and [a] half due to the ongoing supply and labor challenges,” Dudlicek wrote.
Baker, of FMI, said shoppers can take a few extra steps to ensure they’re still getting the items they need. First, he said, meal planning for the week can help shoppers better utilize the items they have and ensure they have a plan before entering the store. And as in the case of Andersson choosing fish instead of chicken, Baker said that being willing to substitute can help.
Some persistence might, too.
“Just because you don’t see it today,” Baker said, “doesn’t mean it won’t be there tomorrow.”