As the holidays approach, your grocery list is probably longer than ever—on top of your normal kitchen staples, it’s time to stock up on specialty items, too. But this year, crossing off everything on your grocery list might not be so easy due to the nationwide supply chain shortages affecting grocery stores.
You’ve probably heard advice about buying holiday gifts early due to supply chain lags. And if you’ve tried to order any furniture or attempted to plan home renovations lately, you’ve experienced supply chain problems for yourself. The same is true for grocery shopping. In recent months, as demand for food outpaces the ability to stock it on shelves, we’ve seen shortages in grocery stores—and experts anticipate they won’t be letting up in time for the holidays.
Wait, What Is a Supply Chain Shortage?
First: What, exactly, is a supply chain shortage? According to Pedro Reyes, MBA, PhD, a supply chain expert and Associate Professor of Management at Baylor University, a supply chain shortage is when products we’re used to buying aren’t available on store shelves (or online). “Somewhere between the food processor and the retail store, there’s a breakdown in the movement,” Reyes says.
This breakdown can happen for any number of reasons. For example, panic buying caused toilet paper and hand sanitizer shortage of 2020. Everybody wanted to stock up on essential supplies amidst the uncertainty of a new pandemic. The current supply chain shortage, he says, is happening for several reasons, some related to the pandemic and some not.
Why Are We Experiencing a Supply Chain Shortage Right Now?
Reyes says the most significant contributor to the current supply chain breakdown isn’t that food is in short supply. Instead, there aren’t enough employees at local warehouses to pick food and other supplies off shelves and deliver them to grocery stores. Chris Mentzer, director of culinary and operations at Rastelli Market Fresh grocery stores in New Jersey, says packaging shortages specifically, plastic and aluminum—are also causing problems, adds Mentzer, which means canned foods, sodas, and other drinks are hard to come by.
Climate-related issues have affected the supply chain, too. For example, Reyes says Texas’ recent winter storms have affected the state’s ability to produce crops, especially wheat, cotton, avocados, and oranges. American ports of entry that usually accept goods from other countries have also faced issues, primarily due to labor constraints.
Due to these labor shortages, grocery stores have been limited in what they can order from vendors. “If our normal order is 1000 cases of something, maybe we’re allowed to order 400 cases from that vendor,” he says.
What Can Grocery Shoppers Expect During This Supply Chain Shortage?
First and foremost, Reyes says we can expect prices to go up significantly at the grocery store. When it’s harder to access supplies, retailers understandably increase the prices of what they can access. “If you buy $100 worth of groceries, it might turn into $120 or $130 by Thanksgiving,” he says.
Anticipate items you normally buy being unavailable, too. Many grocery stores, Reyes says, pre-ordered items you might need for Thanksgiving, which means they’re already in warehouses waiting to go on shelves. Specialty items, like fresh produce from other countries, may not be as readily available.
Most notably, Mentzer says turkey will be in short supply because the cost of corn, which is used to feed turkeys, went up. “A lot of growers decided not to farm as many turkeys because they weren’t making up for the cost of the feed,” he says, adding the same will likely be true for ham.
Reyes says it should be relatively easy to find canned cranberries, somewhat difficult to find frozen ones, and near impossible to buy fresh cranberries close to Thanksgiving, simply because the shelf life of fresh food is so much shorter. Produce, in general, will be in short supply, because it’s often imported, and Reyes anticipates coffee beans might face issues in the near future. (Booze, he says, shouldn’t be a problem.)
Even if the category of food you want is in stock, you may have fewer options than usual. Thanks to the shortage, Reyes says many companies are redesigning their sales portfolios to focus on top sellers. If you typically see 60 variations of Campbell’s soup at the supermarket, you may only have 30 to choose from. Reyes says Frito-Lay and Coca-Cola have done the same thing.
According to Mentzer, many stores are relying on other vendors to get what their customers want to buy. For example, maybe you can’t get Heinz Ketchup or Digiorno pizza, but you could get an off-brand instead.
Here’s How to Deal with Supply Chain Shortages at the Grocery Store Right Now
As a rule, Mentzer says if you see it, buy it. “If you normally buy jarred gravy and it’s on the shelf now, grab it, even if it’s a few weeks early,” he says.
But if there’s one thing Reyes cautions against, it’s panic buying. Instead, focus on buying one or two extra of each pantry staple at a time. “If you can buy a few extra items on each trip, specifically items that aren’t perishable, then I’d recommend that,” he says. Focus on items you know you’ll eventually eat. For example, you could buy a few extra cans of beans now, and if you don’t eat them now, you’ll spend less next month.
It might take a while for things to get back to “normal.” So while you get strategic about grocery shopping, consider breaking from normal traditions and trying new things. Now’s a great time to try a new brand, or even to reconsider your entire holiday menu. “We’re seeing now more than ever that after so many months apart, people just want to be with their families and have fun,” he says. “That makes it easier to break tradition and not sweat the small stuff.”