Is omicron the reason your grocery store shelves are emptier? Here’s what we know

The milk shelf is mostly empty at a Giant grocery store on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in Washington, D.C. Grocery stores have experienced increased shortages recently due to a number of factors, including the omicron variant.
The milk shelf is mostly empty at a Giant grocery store on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in Washington, D.C. Grocery stores have experienced increased shortages recently due to a number of factors, including the omicron variant. AP

Some grocery store shoppers in parts of the United States may be having flashbacks to March 2020.

During the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, stores across the country were plagued with shortages of toilet paper, cleaning supplies and some food products, among other things. Now, some grocery stores are again grappling with empty shelves as the omicron coronavirus variant rapidly spreads.

But omicron is just part of the reason for the shortages. Also at play are existing supply chain and pandemic-related issues, demand and recent winter weather events, experts and industry insiders have said. Here’s what to know.

About the shortages

Shoppers in parts of the U.S. may have recently noticed more bare shelves than usual at their local grocery store.

While grocery stores in the country typically operate with between 5% and 10% of their items out of stock, they’ve recently seen that rate hovering around 15%, Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the trade association Consumer Brands Association, said, according to The Associated Press.

Curt Covington, senior director of institutional credit at AgAmerica, told USA Today that shortage trends are sporadic and that they vary based on a number of factors, including the “item, store and region of the country.”

Additionally, Doug Baker, vice president of industry relations at the food industry association FMI, told The Washington Post that whether a region is impacted by shortages depends on its COVID-19 transmission levels and winter weather events, such as the snowstorm that hit much of the Washington, D.C., region last week.

“Anything that disrupts travel along the way is going to have an impact on a particular area,” Baker told The Washington Post. “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.”

Jim Dudlicek, spokesperson for the National Grocers Association, told The Washington Post “there is plenty of food in the supply chain.” But the group thinks “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.”

Lisa DeLima, spokesperson for Mom’s Organic Market, an independent store with locations in the mid-Atlantic, told the AP that the scarcity of some items is unlike the shortages seen at the beginning of the pandemic.

“People don’t need to panic buy,” she said. “There’s plenty of product to be had. It’s just taking a little longer to get from point A to point B.”

Jessica Dankert, vice president of supply chain at the trade group Retail Industry Leaders Association, made similar comments, telling the AP she thinks the country will go back to “normal patterns” soon.

“You’re not going to see long-term outages of products, just sporadic, isolated incidents — that window where it takes a minute for the supply chain to catch up,” she said.

Is omicron behind the shortage?

Existing supply chain and pandemic-related issues as well as existing labor constraints are still contributing to these shortages, experts have told news outlets. More people are also eating at home during the pandemic, increasing demand at grocery stores, and recent winter weather events have added to the problem.

But omicron certainly isn’t helping.

The omicron coronavirus variant spreads and evades COVID-19 vaccines more easily, meaning more people, including people who are fully vaccinated, are becoming, or will be become, infected. As of the week ending Jan. 8, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that omicron accounts for 98% of cases in the U.S.

More people becoming infected with the virus as omicron spreads means more people staying home from work because they’re sick or because they were exposed. That’s creating staffing shortages in “critical functions,” in turn affecting the ability to deliver and restock items at grocery stores, CNN reports.

The National Grocers Association told CNN many of its members are operating with half of their normal workforce.

Additionally, Freeman said during a call with executives in the food industry that there have been more worker absences in the past two weeks than all of 2020, according to The Washington Post.

Vivek Sankaran, CEO of Albertsons, said during an earnings call that the recent spike in COVID-19 cases is prolonging the low inventory the company has been experiencing, CNBC reported.

“We were expecting that supply issues to get more resolved as we go into this period right now,” he said. “Omicron has put a bit of a dent on that. So there are more supply challenges and we would expect more supply challenges over the next four weeks to six weeks.”

Tony Sarsam, CEO of SpartanNash Co., a grocery distributor based in Michigan, told the LA Times that worker absences in the company have tripled in recent weeks.

“It’s harder because we’re asking people to work overtime,” Sarsam said. “We’re stretching ourselves.”

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