By Bob Gibson
The Covid-19 pandemic first hit the TPSS Food Co-op and other grocery stores like a force of nature. The wave of panic buying was similar to what happens ahead of a blizzard, as shelves emptied of toilet paper, bread, milk, and bottled water. The food distribution network designed for “just in time” deliveries to groceries based on normal consumer shopping was swamped with orders it could not fill.
But blizzards come and go, and grocery stores (and their suppliers) recover in a matter of a few days. The effects of the pandemic on the Co-op are still with us. The wholesale grocery distributors that supply the Co-op continue to struggle to refill product lines, and we can expect to experience shortages – termed “out of stocks” in the grocery business – for months to come.
What Is Behind The Food Supply Problem?
In the short term, wholesalers did not have the inventory on hand to meet the initial overwhelming demand. Recovery has been exacerbated by pandemic-related factors, such as the temporary shutdown of some manufacturers, shortages of truck drivers, employees at various points in the supply chain falling sick or staying home due to the virus risk, or being overextended by demands for extra cleaning and other new workplace practices.
It remains a question whether the production of food in the U.S. that supplies the distributors the Co-op relies on will be constrained by the pandemic over the long term. Experts claim that in general the U.S. continues to produce plenty of food. But the Co-op’s largest wholesale distributor, United Natural Foods, Inc (UNFI), has alerted its customers that raw materials may be difficult to procure as the public health crisis affects farm labor and international trade.
In the immediate aftermath of the widespread shutdown in March, the market for food produced for sale to restaurants, schools and other institutional consumers – approximately one-third of U.S. production – evaporated. The food production, processing and distribution sector focused on non-domestic consumption could not pivot quickly to supply products needed by groceries – or food pantries. By April, produce farmers were plowing under crops, dairy farmers were dumping millions of gallons of milk a day, and hog and chicken farms were euthanizing animals.
How Is TPSS Coping with This Upheaval?
Joey Knell has been a buyer at TPSS for 15 years. His main area is the grocery section (separate from the fresh food areas). Knell notes that normally the Co-op stocks about 50,000 items. This covers all types of food and every department from general merchandise to wellness. That number fell to 3,000 items in the online store.
The reduction in products is due to three causes. One is the lack of product available from distributors. The second is a result of the drop in the number of customers served each day once the store opened for online-only ordering. Lower sales volume makes it harder to meet minimum order requirements for “specialty” items. The third is the difficulty to stock perishable foods for the new online system. We can expect that as sales pick up with the return to in-store shopping, as well as the new “To-Go” orders, more products will return to the shelves.
Compared to most groceries, the Co-op has very limited storage space and relies on several large deliveries per week to maintain goods on the shelves. Knell says that his distributors have done a good job of keeping the Co-op informed about disruptions in supply.
In addition to the obvious, such as toilet paper and bottled water, many staples like beans, canned tomatoes, flour, and yeast were either unavailable or in very short supply.
“After the panic buying, every grocery in the country was making huge orders in an attempt to restock,” says Knell. As a result, he says, “the warehouses were emptied of the best products. So, the distributors put limits on our orders, or we’d place our orders but be told that it was unlikely that they’d filled.” In fact, the National Cooperative Grocers Association reports that through May approximately 30 percent of orders made by cooperatives through UNFI since the pandemic hit went unfilled.
Knell reached out to secondary distributors to try to keep the store stocked with the goods (and the quality of goods) that Co-op shoppers expect to be able to buy. Natural and healthy food groceries like the Co-op have fewer wholesale distribution options than conventional groceries.
The Co-op’s baking section “took a huge hit” says Knell, with flour, yeast, and baking soda unavailable for more than a month. The Co-op was finally able to procure flour from bulk suppliers and bagged its own. Flour is still hard to come by. The Co-op regularly places orders for 40 to 50 cases of flour per week – but may receive only five to ten cases when the truck rolls in.
He says that while things overall are slowly getting better “there are a lot of products that won’t be back for a while.” In the first week in June, the Co-op found out that many of the product lines under the value-priced Co-op Basics label will be discontinued for a period. Co-op Basics are sourced from ‘premium’ brand manufacturers. With supplies tight, these manufacturers are diverting more production to their house brands.
Knell says that his distributors have been great about being in touch with the Co-op on an almost daily basis. “It’s just that they don’t always have accurate information to pass along because of the breakdown in the normal supply chains. It’s a very different time from anything I’ve ever experienced.”
Bob Gibson is a member of the TPSS Board of Representatives.