12 Tactics to Deal With Shortages and Unpredictability at the Grocery Store
Here's how to source all the items on your list—and why they're still not on the shelves
By Tobie Stanger
Fact: In all but four of the past 21 Super Bowls, the winning team has doused their coach with Gatorade. If it happens this year, the NFL’s victory shower of choice might stir up some jealousy among fans of the popular sports drink. That’s because in some areas, Gatorade has been in short supply for months.
It would be another reminder that product shortages resulting from the pandemic—from cat food to crackers—are far from over. For shoppers already frustrated by the inflation rate for groceries and other items—now at a 40-year high—it’s adding insult to injury.
“Zero Gatorade is often sold out here in AZ,” Nora Greer of Scottsdale reports on Facebook. “Options are running low in Asheville in most frozen goods areas,” posts ScalliwagFinance of North Carolina on Reddit’s r/Shortages page. “Finding Fritos has been a bit of a challenge lately,” tweets Clifton Rankin of Beaumont, Texas, with the hashtag #SupplyChainIssues. “It’s getting really annoying to constantly see bare shelves everywhere I go,” says Todd O’Neill of White Plains, N.Y., on a NextDoor neighborhood forum.
Here’s what you can do to locate those hard-to-find beverages and foods—and why you can’t find them in the first place.
It's Not All About Supply Chain
You may have heard about supply-chain challenges to grocery production, including port holdups of ships carrying raw materials; coronavirus-related absenteeism at factories here and abroad; and labor shortages among truckers and grocery workers.
Those pressures haven’t completely eased up and are still making it hard for manufacturers to make, pack, and ship their orders. “We have enough grain, but the plastic film that goes inside bags of cookies, crackers, and snacks is still sitting at the ports in mainland China,” says Burt Flickinger III, managing director at Strategic Resource Group, a retail consulting company based in New York.
A pressure as powerful as supply has been increased consumer demand.
“More people are working remotely, so there’s more home consumption of food,” says Krishnakumar Davey, president of client engagement at IRI, a market research firm based in Chicago. Americans’ appetites have been particularly strong for sports drinks, vitamins, ready-to-drink tea, coffee, and convenience meals, including frozen breakfasts and frozen snacks, IRI research shows. “They just want to quickly put something in the microwave to fix a meal,” Davey says.
Faced with supply challenges and high demand, manufacturers of grocery products have delayed or rationed product deliveries to store shelves, temporarily stopped making some products, and eliminated selected flavors and styles from their lineups forever. The changes often are made strategically, to pump up sales for the “mother ship” brand, says John Ruffley, a veteran consumer-goods marketer based in Summit, N.J. “It ensures consumers have at least your brand to choose from, if not the specific flavor,” he says.
Case of the Disappearing Goldfish
That merchandising sleight of hand is cold comfort to consumers who’ve grown used to a favored flavor or product type. “I think pepperidge farm has run out of the ingredients for pizza goldfish,” tweets a Goldfish-ionado under the moniker Ericmalibu troll-at-large. “Please for the love of God prove me wrong.”
Sorry, Ericmalibu troll-at-large. A Pepperidge Farm spokesperson confirmed to Consumer Reports in early February that, “due to supply chain challenges,” the production of that flavor was temporarily suspended. However, “Flavor Blasted Xplosive Pizza flavored Goldfish are still available,” she added, “and we anticipate Goldfish Pizza to return to shelves in the near future.” She gave no more details.
In some cases, product disappearances are due to unique circumstances. A 5 ½-week labor strike against Nabisco last summer affected the flow of Oreos, Ritz crackers, and other popular snacks. Pet-food makers have had to change their manufacturing processes and eliminate some flavors and lines because they’re not getting the same types of slaughterhouse scraps that they got pre-pandemic. “If there’s a challenge in sourcing, manufacturers may focus more on an animal protein that is more available—say, fish rather than chicken,” says Dana Brooks, president and CEO of the Pet Food Institute in Washington, D.C.
What You Can Do
Some specific items aren’t being made right now and won’t be available for a while. Others are gone for good. And bare shelves may be due to reduced delivery schedules at markets. But in many cases, locating your shopping-list must-haves comes down to tactics. Try these ideas and, if you can, also contact the vendor before you shop in a store or buy online to make sure the product you want is available in real time.
• Get friendly with your grocer. Ask the manager at your favorite store when deliveries of your product typically arrive, and be at the store around that time (or send a proxy). Depending on your relationship to the manager, they may set the items aside for you. Or they may have a line on whether the item has been discontinued.
• Be an early bird. Deliveries from major manufacturers to big grocery chains and warehouse stores typically take place between 4 and 7 in the morning, Flickinger notes. “If there is product available, it’s stocked by 8 a.m.,” he says, “but it may sell out by 10.”
• Frequent a warehouse club. Assuming you like the limited selections at BJ’s Wholesale Club, Costco, and Sam’s Club, you’re more likely to find what you want there. These stores get 12 to 20 deliveries per week from brand manufacturers vs. three to six for a typical supermarket, Flickinger says. Brand manufacturers favor warehouse clubs because their orders are less complex than those of grocers, requiring less variety and fewer sizes, he explains. You may even save money: Costco earns a top score for competitiveness of prices in CR’s ratings of grocery stores and supermarkets.
• Check the maker’s website. It may have details on what’s affecting supply, as well as tools to help you find your faves. PepsiCo, maker of Gatorade, blames its supply predicament on higher demand but also provides a link to a product locator that identifies nearby stores that should be carrying your preferred flavors. It has a similar tool for Fritos. The tool also links you to delivery services through local grocers and third parties like Instacart and Amazon Fresh. But the fine print says, “*All products are subject to availability.” Translation: Call the store first.
• Post queries on company social media pages. Try this on Twitter and Facebook—on the pages of manufacturers and any large grocers you frequent. Just be aware that you might not always get a response—and if you do, you might not like the answer. Condolences are in order, for instance, for the Twitter poster who heard back from @KelloggsUS: “Hello - we’re sad to say that Rice Krispies Treats cereal has been discontinued. You may enjoy Rice Krispies Frosted or Cocoa Krispies cereal, though. Have you tried them?”
• Enlist help from other consumers on social media. On a recent NextDoor post in the Hartsdale, N.Y., area, a plea for help finding Fancy Feast canned cat food generated 90-plus responses, including advice on current availability in several local supermarkets.
• Use store-sponsored and third-party grocery-shopping apps. Some store apps, like Target’s, will point to the closest location where your item is in stock. Third-party app Basket, for instance, finds your products of choice among a variety of local stores, and lets you compare their prices as well.
• Check with independent grocers and convenience stores. They use different distribution systems from the ones traditional grocers use. They may have a line on the items you want, even when they’re not at your local grocery store. When we looked through the Frito-Lay product locator for items in the New York metropolitan area, it showed available products at convenience stores and bodegas rather than supermarkets.
• Sign up for a subscription-based delivery service. On that Fancy Feast NextDoor string, for instance, several commenters mentioned finding their preferred flavors through Chewy.com, an online pet food delivery service.
• Search for wholesale sources. Typically, you’ll have to buy in bulk or bigger sizes, so you’ll need the means and the storage to make this worthwhile. After one poster on Reddit’s r/Shortages mentioned grabbing the last package of ready-to-bake Pillsbury cinnamon rolls at her local store, we typed “Pillsbury cinnamon roll” in Google’s search engine, and found a case of 100 frozen Pillsbury Supreme cinnamon rolls—comparable in size to Pillsbury Grands, but unfrosted—for $100.95 at FoodServiceDirect.
• Buy from a third party online. Some eBay resellers or third-party Amazon sellers may have what you want, though possibly at a higher price and with delivery charges. Pizza-flavored Goldfish were definitely out of stock recently in stores in and around Odessa, Texas. Amazon and eBay, too, showed no individual packages. But Odessa consumers could get an assortment of Goldfish packages through a third party on Amazon—six cheddar, six Parmesan, and six of that coveted pizza—for $23.55, delivered within a week. Delivery for Amazon Prime members was free.
• Be open to substitutions, especially store-brand items. CR has found store-brand, or private label, items to be as good as or better in quality than comparable name-brand products, and they can cost up to 25 percent less. Consider, too, switching to a comparable food or beverage that’s as healthy or more healthy, says Amy Keating, a registered dietitian and nutritionist who leads CR’s food testing. “For snacks, I have actually been popping a lot of popcorn and salting it or adding Parmesan,” she says. “It’s hot, fresh, and cheap.”
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