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Grocery “magic” needs a few days to catch up — a look inside retail distribution

In recent days we’ve all seen and read the toilet paper memes, negative and positive posts, the panic buying of essentials and the lack of understanding of many, many consumers who are completely ignorant of how the supply chain works.

In my conversations with supply side companies, logistics firms and the buy side (retailer) over the past couple of days, one thing is abundantly clear: we as a nation are not running out of food and most non-food products.

When there is a run on supermarkets such as what happened last week and over the weekend, people must understand that retailers have complex inventory and replenishment systems and built-in parameters to meet the “typical needs of customers.” When holidays and special events take place, there is historical data used to ramp up inventory to meet demand.

And those occasions are seamless, and customers never notice disruption, and that is part of the ignorance. You see, retailers are magicians at making something that is so difficult look so easy – a customer walks into a store and Voila! Every product is filled, fresh, and ready for their every need.

But wait…

Now comes a pandemic. Our supply chain is not built to respond as fast as customers rush stores in full panic mode.

I spoke to one wholesaler who supplies retail grocers who said in one day last week they received orders for 460,000 cases in one day, in one distribution center. One day!

He told me that number was eight times the normal for daily orders, or to put in layman’s terms: about 230 truckloads of product.

No company can respond that quickly to a tidal wave of demand. And there are repercussions, such as items like bananas, which take up to seven days from the vessel to the ripening center to be conditioned so they arrive at stores ready to sell. Well, now we see green bananas everywhere. Why? Because there is not enough time to ripen them fully before shipping to stores. Think of the bread (bakeries), milk (dairies), fresh meat (packing house) … you name it. Every category is stressed to the limit.

So, during this time of unprecedented demand for food, think of what your actual needs are and take a breath. The president is not blowing smoke when he says the supply chain is fine, and we are not running out of food. They just need to be able to catch up.

I would suspect as much product that has been purchased over the past week, retailers will be able to catch up in the next five to seven days, if trucks and drivers are able to move the products needed.

Want to pay it forward? Thank a retailer, thank a trucker, thank a farmer, thank a cattleman, and a dairyman. While we are confined mostly to our homes and eating up all of that hoarded food we bought, these men and women are busting their humps to get more to us so we don’t miss a meal.

Joe Watson is the Vice President of Member Engagement, Eastern US, for the Produce Marketing Association. A former produce director for Rouses Markets in Louisiana, he began career in produce as an assistant produce manager in 1983.