Wednesday, April 20, 2011

It's surprising how little food is on grocery store shelves

The original site for the post below is about to go offline, so I'm reposting the following article. I hope this will be eye-opening and will compel those of you who've been waiting to stock up to stock up now while you still can. If you don't stock up or add to your food storage now, but decide to wait until later, you might not get what you need when you need it.

I had a day off last week, two days before Thanksgiving, so I decided I’d do a partial “dry run” of the first of a series of marathon shopping trips I’ve been planning along a 150-mile stretch of a major highway. From one end of this route to the other, there are no fewer than nine 24-hour Walmart Supercenters (and two or three other stores open until midnight). I had enough time that day to travel to five of the stores. What I discovered surprised me, and I hope my experience serves as a wakeup call for anyone who has been lazy with their prepping. Waiting to stock up is the biggest mistake any of us could make.

I work nights so it’s usually easiest for me to travel from early evening to early morning — the hours I usually keep anyway. The first caveat I’ll offer for those of you who do your preps shopping at night is that at most big-box stores, items are still being restocked throughout the night and into the morning, so IF something you need isn’t on the shelf, it might be coming up. Or you might just be out of luck.

Since I was just doing a “dry run” and not a full-fledged shopping trip, at the first store I decided to get just one package of each item I had on my list to see how long it would take on average to navigate the aisles I needed to go to, then extrapolate that time over the number of stores I planned to visit — since food items are clustered together, I figured that the time spent picking up assorted non-food items around the store would be a better indication of how long it would take to navigate each store, then once I had picked up those items I would finish my shopping in the grocery section.

In the health and beauty section, I picked up a toothbrush, a bottle of Great Value brand amber mouthwash (a great oral disinfectant in addition to brushing), a package of dental floss and a package of Lava soap. In the sporting goods section, I picked up a box of ammo, a bottle of gun cleaner and gun oil and a magnesium fire starter kit. In the men’s clothing section, I picked up a pair of gloves and a package of socks.

Then I headed for the grocery section. And a lesson in both de facto food-price inflation and just-in-time inventory procedures.

To keep things simple on this test-run, I planned on grabbing just four grocery items–a case of Great Value canned salmon, a bag of Great Value pinto beans, a container of Great Value oatmeal and (my exception to my one-item rule) a case each of Great Value canned spinach and Great Value canned sliced carrots. I use each of these items on a regular basis, so of course I thought everything would be right where it always was. Boy, was I wrong. And I didn’t realize how wrong I was until I got to the fifth Walmart.

At the first store, I found everything I was looking for, and in fairly ample supply. Except for the canned carrots. There wasn’t a single can of Great Value canned carrots on the shelf. So I flagged down an employee, apologized for the trouble since everyone was trying to keep the shelves full in the leadup to Thanksgiving (this was about 10 p.m. on Tuesday, and Thanksgiving of course was Thursday) and asked the employee if they could check to see if there were any cases of Great Value carrots, and if not, could they tell me how many might be in stock elsewhere? The employee came back, said that according to their computerized inventory they were totally out of Great Value carrots at that store, but that there were 96 cans–a mere eight cases–at the nearest warehouse. I thanked the employee for all of his help, picked up another case of spinach in lieu of the canned carrots and headed for the checkout.

After loading my stuff in the car, I drove to the other 24-hour Walmart in town, with a nagging thought in my mind: What if the second store was out of carrots as well? How far was I willing to drive to find Great Value carrots? Wouldn’t it be a lot less trouble if I just settled for the name-brand carrots that were in ample supply on the shelves, instead of insisting on the Great Value brand? Well, yes, but if the less-expensive generic brand is out of stock and I have to settle for the more-expensive name brand, I’d have to pay more if I really wanted carrots.

And THAT is another angle of food price inflation: Great Value carrots didn’t get any more expensive. I just didn’t get there in time to get the cheaper brand. And so it would cost me more because someone else beat me to those carrots.

But hey, there are 96 cans at the warehouse, right?

ONLY 96 cans of carrots in the local warehouse of the largest retailer in the world. How many other shoppers are looking for Great Value carrots at this moment? But it didn’t really matter–because the carrots were at the warehouse and not on the store shelf. I was flat out of luck. So on to the next store I went.

I hit pauper’s pay dirt at the second Walmart–I got the LAST CAN of Great Value carrots on the shelf! Seeing a manager nearby, I flagged her down and asked her if she could tell me if there were any cases of carrots in the stockroom that weren’t yet on the shelf, and upon checking her computer she also told me that there were 96 cans of carrots at the nearest warehouse, but that I had apparently gotten the last can of Great Value carrots in the store.

Flash back to the mid-1980s when parents were literally fighting in the aisles of toy stores to get the last Cabbage Patch Kids right before Christmas. I felt that lucky. But suddenly I had a sense of vulnerability — what if this was the last can of food in the entire store? I’d be at ground-zero for a mob of hungry, angry people. But you know that moment is coming at some point — and someone will end up getting the very last can of something. And they’ll be in the crosshairs of everyone else who feels entitled to THAT last can and who will do anything to get it. Some of you may have seen this video ( of a mob trampling people to get into a Target store at 4 a.m. on Black Friday. How bad will things be when mobs trample people to get into grocery stores at 4 a.m. because they didn’t stock up when they should’ve because they blew all of their money on expensive toys?

At the third Walmart, again there were no Great Value carrots on the shelf. I flagged down the stocker at the end of the aisle and asked him if he could tell if there were any carrots waiting to be stocked. He walked over to a pallet that was about a 5-foot cube on each side, walked around it while looking at it up and down, then shook his head and apologized that he didn’t have any carrots.

Stop and think about this scene for a moment: I’m average height, about 5-foot-9, and I’m taller than this pallet of canned goods that’s being unloaded for this particular aisle for this day. That’s not a lot of food! Statistics show that grocery stores rotate through their entire inventory in about three days–Google the phrase “nine meals away from anarchy”–but if there’s a sudden surge in business, whether it’s an unexpected weather event (remember “Snowmageddon” last winter?), a natural disaster (look at the looting that occurred after Hurricane Katrina) or a sudden economic panic that sends everyone running to stores before prices spike upward (like gas prices after Katrina), you aren’t going to have stuff on the shelves very long at all, much less when you want those things at your fingertips at any time. Maybe this wasn’t the only pallet of canned goods being unloaded for this particular aisle. But then again, I wasn’t going to be the only shopper! And if the guy in front of me decided he was going to buy everything I wanted, it didn’t matter what was going to come in tomorrow, or next week, or maybe not at all. I was just plain out of luck.

So then it was on to the fourth Walmart — and again there was not a single can of Great Value carrots on the shelf nor in the stockroom, according to a store associate. So I picked up another case of canned spinach and, for variety, a case of fruit cocktail, paid for my items and set off for the fifth store. I forgot to ask the associate at the fourth store if there were any carrots in the warehouse (although this store was two counties away from the first store and may use a different warehouse).

I got to the fifth store, again finding no Great Value canned carrots on the shelf, so I flagged down a manager and asked if they could tell if there were any carrots back in the stockroom. He checked his computer and said that while they were out of the carrots at this store, another store in the next town (a store I had previously not known about) had 63 cans of carrots in stock — but they were not a 24-hour store, didn’t open until 7 a.m., and in fact had to close early the previous evening because a semi had hit a major power line and knocked out power at the store. The fact that there were 63 cans of carrots SOMEWHERE did me absolutely no good because there was no way to obtain them at that time.

The thing about “just-in-time” inventory is that it’s just-in-time for the store–not for the customer. You have absolutely no guarantee that you’ll be able to get what you want if you don’t get it now, and even if you want to wait for something, how long will it be before an item is back on the shelves? At a couple of the Walmarts, I asked the manager if they knew how long it might be before they got more carrots in stock — but they said they had no way to tell. Four stores had no Great Value canned carrots at all. I got the last can at another store. Another store had 63 cans, but they were out of reach until the next morning — and who knows how many other people might be waiting for the store to open and rush to get that very product because every other store was out of it? It doesn’t take a major leap of logic to realize that this will happen when items are in short supply — and how impolite, unruly or even violent will people get when they clamor to get the last item out of your hands because you have it and they want it?


So as I noted above, there are nine 24-hour Walmarts along a 150-mile stretch of highway leading to my town. It could take anywhere from 8 to 12 hours to go to the other end of the route and then go to each store one by one, picking up all of the items I’m trying to stock up on, and finally unloading at my house at the end of the trip. But since we’ve already seen that just because there’s a 24-hour Walmart that there’s no guarantee something will be on the shelf, what kind of fool would I be just to give up and go home? I’d be a hungry fool! But let’s do the math on best-case scenarios on what I COULD get, if everything (including Great Value canned carrots!) is on the shelf. Let’s say that at each of the nine Walmarts, I’m able to get at least a case of carrots or other canned vegetables, a case of canned fruit, a case of canned salmon, 10 lbs. of dry beans and five 42-ounce containers of oatmeal (an average shopping trip for me, not counting refrigerated or frozen items). If I’m able to pick up at least this much of these items at each of the nine 24-hour Walmarts on my route, I’ll arrive home with 108 cans of vegetables, 108 cans of fruit, 108 cans of salmon, 90 lbs. of dry beans and almost 119 lbs. of oatmeal. That’s a pretty good start, and not bad for a day’s work! How long will it take to get a single sandwich or bowl of soup — if anything — if I have to wait in lines at soup kitchens or FEMA centers if I’m foolish enough to keep waiting instead of stocking up now?

And I wonder how many preppers lose sight of the big picture: It’s not how much food or water or ammo or anything else you have that’s important. What matters is how long you and your family will be self-sufficient and not dependent upon the government or other cash- or resource-strapped entities when disaster strikes. Unless a disaster strikes my neighborhood in a manner that directly impacts my house or my family’s lives, I don’t plan to leave my house in search of resources in the event of a disaster. I will either make sure I have as close to everything I need before disaster strikes, or I and my family will find a substitute or do without. If you’re not working on becoming self-sufficient, you’re missing the whole reason you should be prepping. Not only do self-sufficient people ease the strain on scarce or nonexistent resources, but they are in a position to help others during those stuff-hits-the-fan events. It doesn’t take a lot of time or effort to stock up compared to the amount of time wasted in line waiting for help when you could be at home with your loved ones taking care of each other, or helping others. If you plan to wait on stocking up or otherwise becoming self-sufficient because everything looks fine right now, you could be the next disaster waiting to happen.


  1. I read this at the original site. My sense then and now is that while there is a good point to be made here, it is undermined by the fact that this happened two days before Thanksgiving and the ridiculous brand loyalty to Great Value/Wal-Mart. It's akin to saying that two day before Christmas, there was a shortage of Xbox360's at Best Buy therefore no video games were available anywhere. Go shopping for some non-Thanksgiving staple vegetable (let's say canned diced tomatoes) and vary your brands and stores. I'm sure there is plenty of stock.
    Again, I agree with the idea that JIT inventory will really bite us in a crisis but this example doesn't make the case well (and thereby calls into question the soundness of the hypothesis).

  2. Doug, I saw nothing in the original article that suggested "brand loyalty" to the Great Value brand--as I read it, it seems that the Great Value products were just the least-expensive products by default, and that anyone not stocking up less-expensive products while they were still available would experience some semblance of inflation when only more-expensive products are left on the shelves. I'm also not seeing from the article that the writer was advocating shopping at Walmart. Walmart just happened to be the chain at which he chose to illustrate the razor-thin inventories resulting from just-in-time procedures.

    I respectfully disagree with your point that doing this shopping experiment two days before Thanksgiving wasn't representative of "normal" conditions, although I can't speak for why the writer chose that time period for this experiment. There were other brands of carrots available, but buying the more-expensive brands constitutes price inflation when no cheaper alternatives are available, and if the cheaper brands are gone, you end up paying more if you haven't already stocked up on the less-expensive brands. If shoppers had done their Thanksgiving shopping early, they likely would've been able to get less-expensive brands--just as people who stock up now on less-expensive food will pay less than people who only find the more-expensive items left if they shop later, and that's assuming products will be available in the first place. There could be any number of events that spark a run on groceries and other necessary items, and regardless of when and why such a run on items may occur, those people who stocked up while there were plenty of items on the store shelves weren't subjected to the shortages and in that regard were self-sufficient. I think that is the point that the writer was trying to make, and I think he made his point very well.

    If you were to do this experiment yourself, what would you have done differently?

  3. One more thought, Doug. You're absolutely right that it's not a good thing to bow and scrape before the altar of Walmart, but human behavior is not always rational--which is why people go to Walmart at the expense of local retailers, because they don't act rationally. If you add in people acting in less-than-friendly ways if there are shortages of certain goods on the shelves, whether it's food or XBoxes or Cabbage Patch Kids or whatever, people are going to get hurt, or worse. Likewise if people don't think further ahead than just what's on their pantry shelves right now, people are going to be hungry and hurting. The last thing in the world I want to see is hungry, hurting people, and if that hunger and hurt can be prevented by taking proactive measures now by stocking up on food and other necessities, even though I think it's the smartest thing anyway to stock up for multiple reasons not necessarily related to store inventory--you could be ill for an extended period and unable to go to the store for food--and whatever any of us can do to store up more than we use and build up a surplus for ourselves, our families and anyone else that the Lord puts in our path, that is the wise thing to do, and we should do it.

  4. Yeah, I concede the principle. Were I to conduct such an experiment I may not do anything different in the execution. But in the presentation of findings, I'd be a little less focused on explaining that I was trying to get any particular brand at any particular store at any particular time. That is, saying that you went shopping only for GV brand, only at Wal-Mart stores and only 2 days before TGiving opens you up to questions of the methodology instead of the principle. Again, the principle is sound, the presentation of the findings would be more effective if it wasn't so specifically limited to brand, store and time.
    To the greater point, someone reading this account could (like me) say "well, when you look for one brand at one chain at one high volume time, yeah you are going to have a problem... I don't need to prepare". Now, I get the value of prepping, but to someone looking for a reason not to, the original poster gives it to them. Rather, leave out the brand/store/timing details and make a more convincing argument.
    That's just my take.

  5. Another thing to think about: A lot of people typically shop for particular brands, so maybe what this person did in his multi-store shopping trip could in some ways reflect the buying habits of some consumers. My wife likes a particular brand of juice and doesn't much care for the store brand of the same juice, just like some people would opt for certain brands of other products. I find it interesting that people willingly shell out more money for essentially the same product when buying national-brand products when the only difference may be the label. But hopefully given the choice of having any brand of a particular product instead of nothing at all, people would choose to buy rather than not buy. I'm partial to my Cafe Bustelo coffee, but I'll drink Maxwell House (definitely not my favorite) if there's nothing else around.