Although there appears to be plenty of toilet tissue and paper towels on the shelves, grocery chains nationwide are being hit hard by the resurgence in COVID-19 cases, notably the supply-chain issues affecting many other large retailers.
In a Friday email to customers, North Carolina-based Harris Teeter said, “We are living in unprecedented times when it comes to supplying our stores. Challenges with the supply chain have caused major disruptions in our operations.”
The email continued, “Our vendor partners are also experiencing delivery and staffing challenges, which results in a significant cut in product availability for stores,” saying that related issues had temporarily disrupted its popular e-VIC program.
Harris Teeter, which operates eight stores in the greater Wilmington area, also said that major winter storms were “disrupting and delaying product shipments to distribution centers and stores.”
Slate.com reported Friday that, unlike earlier in the pandemic when the main issue was product shortages, “the onset of omicron is now upending operations across the board.” In addition to supply-chain disruptions, the grocery industry at both the retail and wholesale level is facing staff shortages because of COVID and a general labor shortage stemming from the so-called Great Resignation – employees leaving for better paying jobs or taking a break from work, Slate reported. Higher up in the food chain, meatpacking plants and other food suppliers are struggling to keep up with demand.
On Jan. 10, Harris Teeter, a subsidiary of Kroger, started closing nearly all its 250-plus stores at 9 p.m., an hour earlier.
“This decision was made so associates can focus on restocking shelves, cleaning stores and overall ensuring excellent closings to better prepare for the following day,” the chain said in a statement. “We believe that closing earlier will allow associates to process Express lane orders ahead of time, restock and organize shelves and make certain our stores are a clean, safe place to work and shop.”
The release emphasized that the decision was not made due to staffing shortages and that a handful of stores, including the one at 820 S. College Road, would not be affected. That store closes at 11 p.m.
The Greater Wilmington Business Journal contacted officials from several grocery chains with stores in the area. One common thread appears to be the need for flexibility.
“As we’ve been doing since the pandemic’s beginning, store managers can adjust operating hours, as needed, to maintain the safety of our customers and associates,” said Walmart spokesperson Ashley Nolan.
Instead of being open around the clock as in the past, regular hours for the eight area Walmarts currently are 6 a.m.-11 p.m., but Nolan described the situation as “fluid.”
“The supermarket supply chain is under a lot of stress, impacted by product and labor shortages, demand, record exports, shipping constraints, and inflation,” Jared Glover, a spokesperson for Publix Super Markets, told the Business Journal. “We continue to maintain constant communication with our suppliers; however, various product lines may be out of stock in assorted categories.”
Store hours for the Wilmington stores are Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.-9 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; and Sunday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
According to Kelly Davis, senior director of guest engagement at Lowes Foods, hours vary throughout its locations.
“We serve various markets across the Lowes Foods footprint, and within a market our hours can vary depending on the demands and needs we see at specific stores,” Davis said. “Typically, we adjust these hours at the New Year, but no recent changes have been made to our hours of operation.”
She said staffing has not been a significant issue for Lowes.
“Although the staffing shortage issue across the country is certainly a problem for many retailers, we have fortunately not had to adjust any operations or store hours because of this issue," Davis said. "With that said, we are actively hiring hosts for stores across our company, including stores in the Wilmington area.”
Media relations officials with Food Lion did not respond to the Business Journal’s questions.
At the national level, an official with a food-related trade group said the better 2022 the industry was expecting has yet to materialize.
“2022 was not supposed to begin this way,” said Andy Harig, a senior official with the Food Industry Association. “Things were looking up a year ago: local governments were beginning to reopen indoor dining, and headlines predicted that the end of the COVID-19 pandemic was in sight.”
“Unfortunately,” he said, “despite this optimism, a variety of unpredicted factors have since resulted in elevated food prices and strained supply chains.”
On the brighter side, Harig said the pandemic has shown a spotlight on how important grocery stores are.
“If the last year taught us anything, it is that our communities depend on us for more than just food,” he said. “We are local health centers, vaccination hubs, and so much more. Still, in 2022, the food industry will continue stepping up for their communities by adapting, pivoting and innovating to keep shelves stocked at the most affordable price point, as it has since day one of this pandemic.”