Photo by Ashley Nickle

Drastic measures taken by municipal and state governments to limit the spread of the new coronavirus COVID-19 has resulted in unprecedented demand at grocery stores in recent weeks, and retailers expect the huge sales increases could lead to some difficulty sourcing certain produce items in the coming months.

“I have heard that supplies will tighten up,” said Jeff Cady, director of produce and floral for Williamsville, N.Y.-based Tops Friendly Markets. “That certainly is understandable, since it wouldn’t make sense for the produce industry (or just about any industry) to grow or produce 50% more with no prior knowledge that we would be in this current crisis.”

He noted that, in the immediate wake of retail demand spiking, it was a challenge to source potatoes, carrots, onions and salads, among other items, just because the situation took everyone by surprise and stores didn’t have a chance to ramp up existing inventory.

“We are in a pretty good spot right now with main line items,” Cady said. “I am not sure what the future holds, but I would guess this ‘buy-up’ will have an impact on supply for the next few months.”

Michael Schutt, senior category manager of produce and floral for West Sacramento, Calif.-based Raley’s, also said supplies were sufficient in late March.

“After initially being overrun by customer demand, we have course-corrected and are now servicing the stores’ produce needs at a high level,” Schutt said. “It took a Herculean effort by the entire buying team to tap new sources of supply to fill the overnight increase in demand.

“The current landscape is that there is ample product within the supply channel as long as retailers are willing and able to pivot to alternate sizes or possibly grades, knowing that the valve on the foodservice business is shutting down significantly,” Schutt said.

He storage crop supplies, including potatoes and onions, are a real concern

“These items are in extreme demand and more of the world is cooking at home, so it will probably take a few weeks for shopping patterns to normalize before we will truly be able to identify any potential gaps in supply,” Schutt said.

Chris Keetch, director of produce and floral for Carlisle, Pa.-based The Giant Co., also mentioned those commodities.

“We’re not currently experiencing any major challenges sourcing produce, but there are concerns about later availability on some categories, especially those that rely on storage crops to supply during the spring and early summer time frames,” Keetch said.

“Potatoes and onions come to mind as some of our suppliers are packing and shipping product ... originally stored and targeted to deliver in (the) May through July time frame," Keetch said. "We remain in close contact with our supplier partners as this situation develops to ensure we continue meeting the needs of our customers.”

Kevin Byers, senior produce merchandiser for Seattle-based PCC Community Markets, said stores are still quite busy but that sourcing has not been particularly tough in recent days.

“We are seeing normal supply tightness due to the transitions of growing regions, but nothing too difficult to source,” Byers said. “It is impressive how solid the supply chain has been during all this, a testament to all the great people along the supply chain and their hard work. They deserve so much recognition.”

If you've missed any of our earlier coverage on how coronavirus is affecting grocery retail, check out the following articles.

Coronavirus may be ‘inflection point’ for online grocery

More retail sales data show significant spike in fresh produce sales

The Independent View – Calm in the eye of the storm

Retail produce sales rising amid coronavirus concerns

In the wake of panic shoppers

Coronavirus causing sustained Thanksgiving-like demand at retail


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