Why suburban retailers once again are struggling to keep shelves stocked

If you can't seem to find what you're looking for in many stores once again, you're not alone.

Retail industry experts say a bevy of issues again has caused large bare spots on store shelves.

“It's like any little thing right now is going to have an effect, because you're trying to regain your balance,” said Rob Karr, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. “It's kind of a whole boomerang effect from COVID.”

Retailers already were struggling with supply chain issues caused by the pandemic, but the omicron variant has created new staffing issues as a massive wave of cases keeps workers in all sectors of the supply chain home, experts note.

Compounding the problem are winter weather disruptions and inflation that's changing shopping habits.

“We have been working closely with our vendors and suppliers to ensure that our customers have access to everything they need,” said Jewel-Osco spokeswoman Mary Frances Trucco. “While certain categories might be constrained, our stores have been diligent in providing alternative solutions and working quickly to fill any out-of-stocks.”

The omicron variant surge has meant more work for stores — more deep cleaning, a return to masking and social distancing — just as more employees can't work and are taking time off due to illness or quarantine.

In a Monday call with 27 food industry chief executives, Geoff Freeman, CEO of the industry organization Consumer Brands Association, said more employee absences were reported in the past two weeks than in all of 2020.

“That's remarkable,” he said. “Throw on top of that being down 120,000 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.”

And manufacturers are streamlining production of top-selling goods to maximize the fewer workers who remain, Karr said.

“Some companies have focused their efforts on core brands and dialed way back on less popular items,” he said. “And they're focusing on certain sizes as well.”

That's why consumers may not be seeing particular soups on store shelves and have only the option of buying either an 8-ounce jar of peanut butter or a 4-pound tub.

Standard winter weather issues also have slowed an already struggling shipping network throughout the country.

“But again, any little thing just pushes you further back,” Karr said.

Doug Baker, vice president of industry relations for FMI, a food industry organization, said bad weather also influences consumer psychology, which played into some items going out of stock.

“There are certain products people ritually buy when there is an impending weather event,” Baker said. “And then, when people see images of stores low on stock, it's not out of the ordinary for people to buy two of something instead of one, just in case.”

And with more than 5,000 schools delaying their reopening this month due to the omicron surge and storms, families are feeling a greater urgency to stock up on supplies of bread, milk, meat and cereal to make up for meals not eaten at school.

There also has been a big shift in shopping and dining habits.

Rising inflation, coupled with the fear of exposure because of surging omicron cases, is prompting households to eat at home more, inundating grocery stores with more shoppers.

Grocery sales climbed more than 8% in December, according to national retail sales tracker Mastercard SpendingPulse. Stores still are restocking from that surge and have been struggling to keep shelves fully stocked in several categories since the start of the year.

“I believe it's going to take the better half of 2022 to get back to relative normal,” Karr said, “assuming there are no other surprises.”

• The Washington Post contributed to this report.

  Supply issues make it difficult for stores, like this Target in Batavia, to keep products in stock. Jeff Knox/
  Some shelves are empty at this Meijer grocery store in St. Charles. Jeff Knox/
  Empty shelves at this Target store in Batavia illustrate the nationwide supply chain issues. Jeff Knox/
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