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En español | Flour is back. Mostly.
Bare supermarket shelves bereft of the precious white stuff were a signature image of the early days of COVID-19, as a largely locked-down nation got busy baking. Producers got busy, too, cranking up mills to fill the flour gap.
"Our inventory has recovered on 5-pound [bags of] all-purpose across the board,” says Rachel Lewis, brand director at King Arthur Baking Company, one of the country's biggest flour producers. Specialty flours like whole wheat, organic and gluten-free may still be hard to find, she says. Still, more than three-quarters of stores reported no flour outages at all in August, according to NCSolutions (NCS), a data company that analyzes buyer behavior.
"A lot of the supply chains have evened out,” Joan Driggs, a retail expert at market-research firm IRI, says of products that made news a few months ago for their sudden absence. “They've kind of found their balance.”
A lot, but not all. Although the gaps may not be as glaringly obvious, several pantry and utility-closet staples continue to be harder to find than they were pre-pandemic, prone to thin supplies, less variety and periodic out-of-stock situations.
Some of the biggest food and beverage companies have cut back on product variety to focus on their most popular offerings, says Driggs, who has closely tracked shopping trends during the pandemic. Suppliers are still struggling to catch up from the spring's panic buying while dealing with production curveballs like a global shortage of cans.
In normal times, grocery stores and e-commerce sites are out of 5 percent to 7 percent of the items they sell, according to IRI. For the week ending Sept. 6, the figure for food and drink overall was 12 percent, and for some products out-of-stocks reached the mid- to high teens. Here are some of the items you're most likely to find in short supply on your shopping run.
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Paper towels have joined toilet paper and household cleaners as poster products for pandemic shortages. In the first three weeks of August, retailers were more likely to be out of TP for at least some part of the day, “but when paper towels are out of stock, they're really out of stock,” with shortages lasting for longer periods, NCS says.
The data firm cites a recent Wall Street Journal report that linked persistent shortages to paper-towel makers adopting a “lean manufacturing” model that emphasizes efficiency — produce what you can ship and sell quickly, with little excess capacity — and left them unprepared for a tidal wave of demand that has not ebbed.
"People are still very much in stockpiling mode,” Driggs observes. In a recent IRI consumer survey, 20 percent of respondents said they wanted at least a three-month supply of paper towels. (The figure for TP was 27 percent.) “People are afraid of running out because they saw what happened in March,” she says. “There are so many uses for paper towels, they're going through it almost as fast as they are toilet paper, and they want to have it on hand.”
With stuck-at-home families stocking up on multipacks, soda selection in some areas has thinned. Store stocks of carbonated drinks were around 85 percent in early September, according to IRI.
Dr Pepper acknowledged the shortfall on Twitter, telling fans, “We're working on it — hang tight!” (Toilet paper giant Charmin cheekily tweeted back, “Welcome to the club, we feel your pain.") Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have also felt the pinch, cutting production of some flavors to maintain supplies of their marquee products.
A major culprit? The can crunch. “The aluminum-beverage-can manufacturing industry has seen unprecedented demand,” says Robert Budway, president of the Can Manufacturers Institute, a national trade group. The shortage has also hit beer supplies, especially for craft brewers. Budway says that can makers are working to fill the gap, boosting imports from overseas facilities and ramping up manufacturing capacity to increase production by 12 billion cans by the end of 2021.
Lockdowns sent consumers flocking to ready-to-eat foods, especially those produced by legacy brands like Campbell's and Progresso that, for many, confer a measure of nostalgic comfort along with shelf stability. Demand has stayed high into summer, when soup sales typically flag. In August one-third of stores were reporting out-of-stocks on soup for at least a part of the day, according to NCS.
Less variety has been a side effect of the soup spurt. Kelsey Roemhildt, communications manager for Progresso parent General Mills, says the soup line saw “nearly 100 percent retail sales growth” in the three months ending May 31. To simplify strained supply chains, Progresso temporarily reduced its portfolio from nearly 90 kinds of soup to about 50. Campbell's also adjusted product variety so overall supply could keep pace with demand.
Meat, poultry and seafood
Months past the shortages caused by COVID-19 outbreaks at some meat- and poultry-processing plants, supplies can still be hit-and-miss, due in part to high demand. August sales of frozen meat and poultry were 29 percent higher than a year ago, and those of fresh seafood were up 30 percent, Driggs says. “You can attribute all of this to more meals being prepared in the home and people just continually working through whatever it is that they stockpiled.
"People are being experimental; they're trying new products,” Driggs adds. “If you were someone who was used to cooking — and certainly boomers have all the confidence in the world in the kitchen, but even they're looking for inspiration — they're looking at different things, like plant-based meats or seafood, things that they were encouraged to try when some of the cuts that they regularly went to were not available.”
Beans and grains
The share of stores reporting low stocks of dried beans and grains rose from 5 percent before the pandemic to 19 percent in June and has held steady at that rate, ranking these home-cooking staples among the hardest-to-find foods, according to NCS.
That's a hangover from what NCS calls the extreme-buying period in mid-March, when sales and scarcity of beans and grains reached flour-like levels. Eager to keep pantries stocked with long-lasting basics, consumers spent nearly 500 percent more on these items than in the same period last year, and suppliers are still struggling to replenish stocks.
If no longer growing at triple-digit rates, demand remains high. In August dried-bean sales were up 17 percent over last year, IRI reports. Health as well as hoarding may be playing a role. “A good swath of the population is trying to eat a little bit better,” Driggs says. “Beans are a fantastic source of protein, and they're cheap, and we need both right now."
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Canned and frozen vegetables
Demand remains high for food that lasts, on the shelf or in the freezer. B&G Foods, owner of Green Giant, says sales of that venerable brand are up by more than 50 percent in the past few months. Numbers like that have helped make canned and frozen vegetables some of the hardest-to-find items among the food categories tracked by IRI, with store supplies at 83 percent in the first week of September.
The dearth of cans and other packaging is also a factor. “Our manufacturers are still impacted by shortages in metal food cans, plastic pouches and labels,” explains James Kwon, CEO of ePallet, a digital marketplace for food companies to buy and sell products in bulk. That's contributed to “cascading delays and reduced output,” he says.
More than three-quarters of U.S. stores were out of pain relievers, allergy medications or respiratory medications for at least part of the day during the first three weeks of August, and about 1 in 5 were out for most of the day, according to NCS.
Stores ran short on OTC meds at steadily rising rates through the spring months as consumers rushed to stock up for allergy season. Out-of-stock rates have come down slightly since June, but with cold and flu season looming, NCS warns, “we expect these rates to remain elevated."
Liquid hand soap
Like hand-sanitizer bottles, soap dispensers disappeared fast when the pandemic hit, and their return has been limited and halting, with selection down and prices up. For the 12 weeks ending Aug. 23, unit sales of liquid soap were up 31 percent from the same period in 2019, according to IRI data. Dollar sales increased at twice that rate, thanks to a big hike in the price tag.
A shortage of plastic pumps has affected production (and pushed manufacturers to promote refill containers and pump reuse). But a bigger problem is that producers “didn't anticipate the need,” Driggs says. Even if they have the infrastructure to speed production, “there's a reach down the supply chain for ingredients."
And when hand soap does get to stores, she adds, consumers clear it out fast, worried they won't see it next time. “As with toilet paper, this is another product that people saw shortages of,” Driggs notes. “Even if genuine need isn't there, people will buy it if they see it's available."