Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Empty grocery store shelves, Part 2

Two weeks ago Sunday as my husband and I were leaving mid-day church, I had to divert to HEB Clear Lake Market (i.e., not the closer League City HEB) to pick up the week's supply of milk. 

My husband began complaining out loud, which is highly unusual for his laid-back self, but my diversion was creating a risk of making us late for a post-church commitment on our time.   This is what I offered in response to his protests:

"I have to do this because I know from experience that my odds of securing half-gallon cartons of organic skim milk in HEB-CLM at this hour on a Sunday are about 50%, whereas my odds at any other grocery store in Clear Lake are closer to 25%.  And if I wait until later today, those 50% odds will decline from there.  So I either have to do this now, or else wait to get milk for us until after the restocking which typically occurs mid- to late-day on Monday, which would be too late for today's needs."

The mood of my husband, an engineer mildly obsessed with systemic efficiencies, degenerated even further from that point.  His initial grumble amplified to a full-blown howl as he wondered aloud how any grocery store manager could possibly be so stupid as to allow the inventory such a high-dollar, high-margin staple to remain so consistently low or un-stocked for significant periods of time.  The market offers all kinds of "JIT" (just-in-time) software specifically developed to prevent that very scenario, after all.

Last November, I wondered whether this chronically-understocked condition was a ramification of the Eagle Ford Shale boom in Texas which perhaps was siphoning off the labor that would be required to achieve effective retail management in places such as our local grocery stores.

Here's a screengrab of my milk wails from that original blog post.  On that day, I had attempted to get the grocery shopping done before going to church. 
But now there's a new suggestion that this supply-and-demand break-down may be more systemic than regional.  TIME recently published an article titled "The Trouble Lurking on Walmart's Empty Shelves" which postulates that this retailer has intentionally reduced its labor force to such a degree that it's now cutting its own profit-margin throat. 

In other words, it isn't an external labor shortage (such as what might be wrought by a nearby workforce-sucking oil boom) which is driving the trend - it's an internal failure of the business model. 

The article explains, "A number of accounts quote shoppers as leaving Walmarts empty handed and heading for competitors."  Absolutely!!  Not only did I have to stop shopping at the League City Walmart some time ago for that reason, I actually took the time to file a formal complaint about the fact that so much grocery stock was chronically missing from their shelves that it made the store literally un-shoppable for me, because I target specific organic items and I'm not willing to purchase any inferior substitutes that might happen to be still stocked. 

Here's where TIME could improve its own content by looking more deeply at the issue.  The question they asked both directly and indirectly is the obvious one:  Why would Walmart let a thing like this labor shortage happen?  Are they not thusly shooting themselves in the retail foot?

The answer is not the resounding "Yes!" that one might first guess.  Retail businesses succeed on the basis of the incremental value that they offer relative to their competition.  But if every other retailer is also chronically understocked for key consumer commodities, then it becomes questionable as to how much net damage Walmart is really doing to itself.  It's not like we consumers have anywhere else to turn at this point. 

Either way, whether this problem is originating externally or internally, it sucks for us consumers who will need to continue wasting valuable time scrounging for un-stocked essentials.
Yet another empty Clear Lake grocery shelf, photographed in early April 2013.  The sale tag reads "What a Deal!"  Well, it ain't much of a deal if there's none of the stuff available to buy, is it?? 

I found a very efficient way around this particular chronic organic brand shortage (Nature's Path Pumpkin Flax Granola): Sam's Club sells it in institutional sizes and they usually have at least one partial pallet available in their El Dorado location.   Therefore whenever I spy this particular empty shelf in a grocery store, I gloat to myself, "Ha ha!!  I found a workaround for the chronic shortage of that one product, at least!!"

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