Jan 22, 2022 - Economy

Why you're seeing so much coverage of empty American grocery shelves

Partially stocked shelves at a grocery store

Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

A recurring thread of press coverage suggests that American grocery stores are starting to have so many empty shelves that they resemble the despondent Soviet-era world of scarce food.

Yes, but: It's not so simple. Overall, product availability is consistent with its levels over the entirety of the pandemic — though there are reasons people may be feeling shortage more acutely.

Why it matters: People want to buy the groceries and other goods they need, when they want them. In the pandemic world, that isn't always happening — which fuels a sense that the economy is broken.

By the numbers: According to the IRI Supply Index, 86% of grocery products were available last week, as were 90% of other consumer packaged goods.

  • If you went to an average store, nine of the 10 things you wanted to buy were there. On average, at least.

The Biden administration is following these numbers closely. Brian Deese, the president's National Economic Council director, tweeted the IRI numbers Wednesday as evidence that the empty shelves narrative is overblown.

  • The 89% rate of overall product availability last week was consistent with levels throughout the last two years of pandemic, it's still below the 93% to 95% levels that retailers aimed for before the pandemic.

Moreover, variance in product availability across different products and locations has increased, said Krishnakumar Davey, president for client engagement at the research firm. So for certain products in certain markets, shortages really are severe.

  • Across all markets, only 49% of products in the baking needs category were available in early January, and that was only 34% in the localities with the lowest numbers. Cream cheese, sports drinks and salty snacks were also in comparatively short supply.

The bottom line: Grocery availability isn't getting worse overall in recent weeks, but it has remained stubbornly below pre-pandemic levels — and it's no wonder that is making shoppers cranky.

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