Some store shelves empty after COVID-related disruptions

Shelves at many supermarkets in the Las Vegas Valley and across the country may appear empty more often than usual as the latest wave of COVID-19 disrupts the operations of major retailers.

Shoppers may have less choice from cream cheese, cold medicines, meats and a few other products that are not in their usual displays or in short supply. Supply chain disruptions occurring at multiple points along the logistics line are the root of the problem, industry officials say.

It’s something 77-year-old Las Vegas resident Brian Nelson has learned about over the past month.

“I saw a lot of empty or half-empty shelves and I had to switch brands of dog food,” he said while shopping Thursday at a Smith’s in downtown Las Vegas. “You have to change your plan every now and then. Aquafina is not here, you get Dasani. Some times it’s worse than others, but it hasn’t really bothered me.”

Supply chain disruptions can start early in the process as plant closures at manufacturers abroad, said Bryan Wachter, spokesman for the Retail Association of Nevada. Labor shortages, winter weather effects in parts of the country and supermarket workers getting the virus themselves have all contributed to the ‘intermittent outages’ of products.

“All of this leads to small, one-time product failures,” Wachter said. “There are products on the shelf. We receive products every day. Your favorite brand may be out, your favorite varieties may be out, but we’re confident you can still find what you need on the shelf if you can be flexible on those key points.”

Labor is a major cause of the disruptions, according to the National Grocers Association. Association spokesman Jim Dudlicek said a recent survey of the group’s membership found that some stores were operating with less than half the normal headcount during the latest wave.

The association wants to alleviate the problem by prioritizing state and federal government supplies testing, and greater flexibility on any “troublesome mandates” in a particular area, Dudlicek said in an email.

For similar reasons, product shortages have occurred in several industries over the past year. And most of the stores are stocked and are constantly getting new shipments. But it’s still a hurdle that some major supermarket chains thought would now disappear. In the US, supermarkets are out of stock 10 percent or less of their items at any given time, The Associated Press reported. The out-of-stock percentage is now about 15 percent.

In a third-quarter earnings call Tuesday, Albertsons CEO Vivek Sankaran said the company expected to have fewer supply problems this quarter, but the latest surge has only exacerbated the problem.

“Omicron put a bit of a dent on that,” Sankaran said during the call. “So there are more delivery challenges and we expect more delivery issues in the next four to six weeks.”

For some, the outages are frustrating. While shopping at Smith’s on Thursday, Las Vegas residents Nikkie Glickman and Donna Kraft said they couldn’t find distilled water used for a CPAP machine, as well as a special brand of cat food needed for their hairless cats. They’ve noticed periods of low inventory in multiple stores since about Christmas, they said.

“If you find what you need, you have to stock up because it might not be there tomorrow,” Kraft said.

Still, retail leaders are urging shoppers not to panic buying and artificially add to shortages like the one seen in the spring of 2020.

“As long as we’re all buying reasonable quantities of things that we’ll be using in the next week, we know there will be more deliveries tomorrow and more items on the shelves every day,” Wachter said. “The way we alleviate (problems) is by not changing our shopping habits. We can avoid that large-scale outage that we experienced at the start of the pandemic.”

McKenna Ross is a member of the force at Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Contact her at To follow
@mckenna_ross_ on Twitter.

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