Post #865: Getting ready for a hard winter, 5: Grocery story deja vu

Posted on October 15, 2020

As you (almost certainly don’t) recall, I tracked the progress of pandemic panic shopping in the Vienna, VA area.  That started with with the disappearance of all dust masks from the local Home Depot before Virginia had even one COVID-19 case.  Progressed to “genteel panic shopping“, where only the good stuff was gone.  Passed through the Soviet-style hundreds-of-people-lining-up-at-the-rumor-of-toilet-paper phase.  And finally seemed to settle down into the occasional shortage of the odd item or two.  (Yeast? Apple cider vinegar??)  This was summarized, with dates and references to original posts, in Post #816.

Along with slow internet, I thought that the poorly-stocked grocery store was now a thing of the past.  Been there, done that. Got the merit badge.

But from what I’m seeing and hearing, that’s just not so.  And so, both by the evidence of my own eyes, and by a few credible reports, I’d say that grocery store shelves seem to be thinning out once again.

And so, if your life didn’t seem quite enough like Groundhog Day,* you can now look forward to modest repeats of the same shortages you dealt with earlier this year.

* ” … doomed to spend the rest of eternity in the same place, seeing the same people do the same thing EVERY day.”  Rob Harthill,

For the life of me, I can’t quite figure out why.

What do I think I saw, locally?

These days, I’ve been shopping at the Pan Am Safeway.  (Having forgiven them for their early stupidity regarding mask use by employees).  So my comments refer to this store.  But my wife has now passed along similar comments about a local Wegmans.  So I’m beginning to think this is a little broader than one store, one day.

Here goes.

Starting about three weeks back, I noticed that the TP aisle was once again “moth-eaten”.  It had gone from nice, solid wall of TP, each stack flush with the edge, to a wall with noticeable holes in it.

I thought nothing of it.  It was odd enough that I mentioned it to my wife.  In one of those “you don’t suppose” kind of comments.  But I otherwise ignored it.  A one-off experience.  Could be they hadn’t gotten to restocking it.  Could be I was there at the end of a weekend.

This most recent trip, at the end of last weekend, was moderately-but-not shockingly different.  What stood out was the skimpiness of the fresh meat section.  Stocks of poultry were low.  Selection was limited.  I went there to buy boneless, skinless chicken thighs, but had to make do with chicken breasts.

The tribulations we must endure, here in the ‘burbs, during this pandemic. /s

Anyway, that hit home, because it is rare, under normal circumstances, for a grocery store the size of that one to be out of any routine cut of meat.  Or, really, any item at all.

I’d like to say that, in hindsight, I recalled other oddities in the stocking as well.  But, absent notes, I’m just as likely to be making that up as to be having actual recall.  So let me just stick to the facts.  Poultry stocks were low, and a common cut of poultry was missing entirely.

Again, I ignored that as a possible one-off event, until my wife started repeating reports she read, from people she knew, of other grocery stores showing skimpy stocks of fresh produce, meat, and other items.

In hindsight, I may have made a mistake in ignoring the early signs.  The mistake being that I said to myself, ah, there’s no reason for a second round of grocery store shortages.  I had failed to learn the lesson of the first round, which is that reason has more-or-less nothing to do with it.  Often, it’s simply due to the madness of crowds (Post #560).

A shortage of poultry is a perfectly reasonable thing to have expected, some months back.  That’s when COVID-19 was running through all sorts of meat processing plants, including multiple different poultry plants here in Virginia (e.g., Post #715).

But it’s odd to see that now, months after the initial shortages.   And I can’t quite grasp why we would see it.  On the one hand, maybe the change of seasons affects us the same way it affects the squirrels, and we’re all  unconsciously squirreling away a little extra food for the winter.  On the other hand, maybe the effects of those temporary meat packing plan closures continue to ripple through the supply chain.  On yet a third hand, maybe there are ongoing problems with the meat packing industry that have just faded out of the news.

On yet a fourth hand, maybe the onset of colder weather is once again encouraging home consumption of food over restaurant consumption.  Most of the dine-in business at our local restaurants these days is outdoor dining.  If that more-or-less shuts down for the winter, that may have knock-on effects on grocery supply.  But I think it’s too early to see that yet, at least in this climate.

Or maybe reason has nothing to do with it.  In any case, at least two of the local grocery stores are starting to appear a bit understocked, in places.  It’s worth keeping an eye on, to see how this develops.