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Some Holiday Staples in Short Supply

Spices, pumpkin, small turkeys might be harder to find

Grocery store shopping

BLOOMBERG / GETTY IMAGES

A spike in coronavirus cases and increased social distancing restrictions are colliding with fall and winter celebrations, making it a challenge to find everything on holiday shopping lists.

With a fresh wave of COVID-19 on the rise, retailers are starting to see empty shelves and are putting purchasing limits on in-demand items like toilet paper, cleaning products and hand sanitizer. But many aren't yet seeing the panic buying of early spring, when coronavirus worries left store shelves bereft of all sorts of items like yeast, flour, chicken and cans of tuna.

When it comes to holiday items, grocers made their purchasing decisions months ago, but they may not have predicted consumer demand accurately, experts say. “Most grocers [bought stock] before anyone thought the restrictions brought on by the pandemic would last into the fall and winter months,” says Jim Dudlicek, director of communications and external affairs for the National Grocers Association.

COVID-19 has altered consumers’ buying behavior, says Daniel Stanton, author of Supply Chain Management for Dummies and a professor at Bradley University. “If a lot of people change their habits, even a little, it can throw off the supply side of the equation,” he says.

To combat this, Stanton advises that consumers not overbuy or hoard. By “making a conscious effort not to stress the supply chain there's a better chance it will be able to function properly,” he says.

And with careful planning, flexibility and a calm attitude, you should be able to find what you need for the holidays.

Smaller turkeys on the Thanksgiving table

Four Holiday Shopping Strategies

Consumer research expert Brian Numainville offers these tips:

• As much as you can, plan for items you will need. Spur of the moment purchases may be more difficult. If you see something you need, purchase it. It may not be there next time you shop.

• Try to determine when your store stocks its shelves and visit during those times for the best chance at finding in-demand items.

• Think outside the box — if your favorite supermarket is out of something, it's possible you might find it at a different store or another type of retailer, like a drugstore or dollar store.

• Consider shopping your supermarket online. Add to your cart throughout the week, and if your store allows it, select substitute items that would also be acceptable for the greatest chance of getting the products you want.

 

The average weight of a turkey typically purchased for Thanksgiving is 15 pounds. With smaller gatherings more likely this holiday due to COVID-19 virus guidance, many families will have fewer mouths to feed. Grocery chain Kroger used its own data to conclude that 43 percent of its shoppers plan to celebrate the holiday with only those in their immediate household.

National retailer Walmart, citing data from turkey producer Butterball, notes that those who plan to celebrate only with immediate family has risen from 21 percent in a typical year to 31 percent. In response, the chain will offer a larger selection of smaller birds.

"With more customers planning for smaller groups, we anticipate a higher preference for smaller turkeys,” says Jacqui Lyons, divisional merchandise manager, seafood and seasonal meat. “This year, we've increased our assortment of bone-in and boneless turkey breasts by 20 to 30 percent in stores across the country.”

Likewise, Northeast family supermarket chain Stew Leonard's is decreasing the number of turkeys over 16 pounds and stocking 20 percent more turkeys under that weight, President and CEO Stew Leonard told the Today show.

On the other hand, Beth Breeding, vice president of communications and marketing at the National Turkey Federation, told Today show reporters that while some people might opt for “slightly smaller turkey or a bone-in turkey breast this year,” she predicted that there will still be a demand for the whole bird, especially because leftovers remain one of the best parts of the meal.

Big demand for spices

Shoppers may have to hunt a bit for holiday herbs and spices like cinnamon, cloves and sage and other seasonings. Demand for spices has been way up since the start of the pandemic, as consumers cook more at home.

According to NCSolutions, which offers insights into buyer behavior, between February and October 2020, sales in the herb and spice seasoning category were 45 percent higher compared to that same period last year. And during the early part of the pandemic, which NCS refers to as an “extreme buying” period, seasoning sales increased 72 percent. Despite those figures, NCS predicts that “the high sustained sales do not indicate widespread product shortages."

Yet, even though stores have been preparing, Brian Numainville, a principal at food industry consumer research and consulting organization Retail Feedback Group, says consumers should expect “to see limits imposed on the number of products a shopper may purchase on a trip so there are larger quantities of product available for more people.”


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But stores are better prepared now than they were in the pandemic's early days, says Deana Percassi, director of media and public relations strategy at Wegmans Food Markets, a family-owned supermarket chain with 104 stores in the Northeast.

"Some national brand suppliers who faced supply challenges on holiday items like stuffing, gelatin and gravy have put them on allocation to help maintain an even distribution among retailers,” she says.

Wegmans, like many other stores, has spent the last several months “sourcing additional suppliers, bringing in new brands and working with its [in-house] brand suppliers to build up holiday and winter reserves in our own warehouses as well as our suppliers'."

Canned pumpkin late to shelves

While shortage may be too strong a word, bakers looking for pumpkin for their holiday pies may need to be persistent to find the canned goods they need. (Though just so you know, the orange stuff that comes in the cans is typically not pumpkin and is actually winter squash, a close relative.)

Consumers were so worried about finding what they need for their holiday pies and other dishes that major canned pumpkin producer Libby's put out an official statement trying to assuage those fears. The company noted that, due to weather conditions, their harvest was delayed this year, leading to slow stocking of those familiar cans on grocery store shelves.

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