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Empty shelves again? Omicron disrupts Las Vegas grocery stores

Updated January 14, 2022 - 6:59 am

Shelves at many grocery stores in the Las Vegas Valley and across the country may look empty more frequently than usual as the latest wave of COVID-19 disrupts major retailers’ operations.

Shoppers may have less choice of cream cheese, cold medicine, meat and a smattering of other products not in their usual displays or in low stock. Supply chain disruptions occurring in multiple points on the logistical line are behind the issue, industry officials say.

It’s something that 77-year-old Las Vegas resident Brian Nelson said he has taken note of in the last month.

“I noticed a lot of empty or semi-empty shelves, and I had to switch a brand of dog food around,” he said while shopping Thursday at a Smith’s in central Las Vegas. “You gotta change your plan every once in a while. Aquafina’s not there, you get Dasani. Sometimes it’s worse than others, but it hasn’t really been troublesome for me.”

Disruptions to the supply chain can start as early in the process as plant closures at manufacturers overseas, said Bryan Wachter, spokesman for the Retail Association of Nevada. Labor shortages, winter weather effects in parts of the country and grocery store workers themselves getting the virus all have contributed to products’ “intermittent outages.”

“All of that is leading to small, one-shot product outages,” Wachter said. “There are products on the shelf. We are getting products every day. Your favorite brand might be out, your favorite varieties might be out, but we are confident that you will still be able to find what you need on the shelf if you can be flexible on those key points.”

Labor is a key contributor to the disruptions, the trade association National Grocers Association said. Association spokesman Jim Dudlicek said a recent survey of the group’s membership showed some stores were operating with less than half of normal staffing levels during the latest wave.

The association wants to relieve the issue by getting priority for testing supplies from state and federal government, and more flexibility from any “onerous mandates” in a particular area, Dudlicek said in an email.

Product shortages across industries have occurred throughout the last year for similar reasons. And, most stores are stocked and getting new shipments consistently. But it’s still a hurdle some major grocery chains thought they would clear by now. In the U.S., grocery stores typically have 10 percent or less of their items out of stock at any time, The Associated Press reported. The out-of-stock rate now is about 15 percent.

In a third-quarter earnings call Tuesday, Albertsons CEO Vivek Sankaran said the company expected to have fewer supply issues by this quarter, but the latest surge has only exacerbated the problem.

“Omicron has put a bit of a dent on that,” Sankaran said on the call. “So there are more supply challenges, and we would expect more supply challenges over the next four to six weeks.”

For some, the outages are frustrating. While shopping at Smith’s on Thursday, Las Vegas residents Nikkie Glickman and Donna Kraft said they couldn’t find distilled water, used for a CPAP machine, as well as a special brand of cat food needed for their hairless cats. They’ve noticed the bouts of low stock at multiple stores since about Christmastime, they said.

“When you do find what you need, you gotta stock up because it may not be there tomorrow,” Kraft said.

Still, retail leaders urge shoppers not to panic-buy and artificially add to shortages such as those in the spring of 2020.

“As long as we’re all buying reasonable amounts of things we’re going to use in the next week, we know there are more deliveries tomorrow and more items on the shelves every day,” Wachter said. “The way we ease (issues) is by not changing our shopping habits. We can avoid those large-scale outages that we experienced at the beginning of the pandemic.”

McKenna Ross is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Contact her at mross@reviewjournal.com. Follow @mckenna_ross_ on Twitter.

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