At one time, few routines in life were as predictable as shopping for groceries: make a list, follow a budget, fill the cart, and unpack the items once home. All of that changed during the COVID pandemic, however, and now stocking the pantry with our favorite items remains far more complicated than it used to be. From store-imposed purchase limits and reduced shopping hours to a new tax for plastic bags, most consumers are still adjusting to new shopping habits, and no one can predict when, if ever, things will turn back to what was once considered normal.
Empty Shelves and Purchase Limits
If you have dozens of rolls of toilet paper stored in your basement, you’re not alone. Many consumers were caught off guard and panicked in March 2020 when paper and cleaning supplies sold out everywhere. Consumer stockpiling quickly became one way to protect against being caught in that situation in the future. Some grocers, such as Food Lion, still post signs near paper towels and toilet paper aisles asking customers to please limit their purchase to two items.
“Generally, a grocery-store empty shelf is the signal of a demand-and-supply mismatch,” says Mehmet Altug, an associate professor at George Mason University’s School of Business. Manufacturing, inventory, and stocking decisions are usually made based on forecasts of consumer demand, but those forecasts before 2020 never predicted a worldwide pandemic.
“We learned a lot during the past year, and things are better,” says Altug. “If stores are still enforcing product limits, it might be an attempt to discourage hoarding of some items, but from the production perspective, the reality is that actual consumer need or consumption for the aforementioned types of products hasn’t changed, and some consumers are still buying more than they need or can use,” he says. “And seeing those limit signs in stores might actually prompt some consumers to buy two items when they actually only need one.” So, while it does make sense to have a few extra supplies on your shelves to be on the safe side, don’t overstock to the point that your neighbors can’t find what they need as well. Can’t find your favorite brand of peanut butter? Consider this an opportunity to sample similar products.
“I think the possibility of more COVID variants might be causing a lot of uncertainty for shoppers,” says Altug. “Some consumers probably worry there will be more variants that may continue to cause problems; we certainly are not out of this COVID situation entirely yet.”
Hoarding is just one reason store shelves seem lighter. Supply chain shortages are making national headlines, with televised and printed images of full cargo ships idling off the coast, unable to unload or transport because of labor shortages, both at the docks and in trucking.
Labor shortages are impacting production of goods. According to an October 8, 2021, statement by the Consumer Brands Association, a severe labor shortage is sending the consumer packaged goods (CPG) supply chains in to chaos. “As the COVID-19 pandemic has worn on and supply chain pressures have intensified, we have run out of slack in the system,” says Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of Consumer Brands. “The labor shortage is driving the majority of issues in the supply chain . . . an untenable situation for manufacturers.”
Closed Stores and Reduced Hours
Many grocery chains have announced closing some locations, and others have adjusted shopping hours. In September, Harris Teeter issued a statement that it would temporarily reduce shopping hours at all of its stores nationwide in order to “focus on thorough cleaning, replenishment, staffing, and the well-being of our valued associates.” Now open daily from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., this presents problems for service and shift workers who were accustomed to shopping there until 11 p.m., or, at some locations, 24 hours a day.
“We believe closing our stores earlier will allow our valued associates to: take their earned days off; efficiently process ExpressLane orders; manage labor in this difficult employment environment; ensure excellent closings to better prepare for the following day; and make certain that our stores are a clean, safe place to work and shop,” says Harris Teeter’s communications team. So, be patient if the employee stocking shelves or running the cash register is slower than usual or doesn’t have a quick answer to your question, because they are likely a new hire in training, and the stores are working hard to find and retain employees.
Another factor rapidly affecting how stores interact with customers and stock shelves is the rapid rise in online shopping. “Before COVID, far fewer people bought groceries online,” says Altug. “Many customers are more comfortable doing this now, at least for certain types of products, and that may become the new normal for a large segment of the population compared to before the pandemic.” For those who haven’t ordered groceries online yet, you may want to consider giving it a try.
The Price of Plastic Bags
The cost of single-use plastic bags to the environment is obvious, but now Virginia consumers are realizing the cost to their budgets as well. In 2020, the Virginia Assembly enacted legislation allowing any city or county in Virginia to impose a five-cent tax on each disposable plastic bag provided to customers in grocery stores, convenience stores, and drugstores, but they need to pass an ordinance to begin applying the tax.
The tax does not apply to some plastic bags, like those for ice cream, meat, poultry, produce, poultry, and loose bulk items. Collected taxes are to be used for environmental cleanup, providing education programs designed to reduce environmental waste, mitigating pollution and litter, or for providing reusable bags to recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC) benefits. If the plastic bag tax is irritating you, consider our ever-growing landfills and keep a few sturdy reusable shopping bags in your car, so you remember to take them into the store next time you shop.
So far, local areas that will enforce the tax, beginning January 1, 2022, include Alexandria City, Arlington County, Fairfax County, and Fredericksburg.
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