With COVID cases and hospitalizations on a steady decline and vaccines for children now available, there's a glimmer of hope that the worst of the pandemic is behind us. And while that might prove to be true of pandemic-related illnesses, a host of other issues—from labor and logistical problems to antitrust concerns—mean the nation's grocery supply issues are far from over.
"Our supply chain is amazing," says IGA CEO John Ross. "We can bring fresh strawberries to rural Alaska on a daily basis and everything in between. It's an amazing machine that was designed for a predictable volume. When things became unpredictable, it took human interaction and heavy, heavy lifting to keep those shelves stocked, and that's continuing right now."
And that goes double for independent grocers, who face what NGA President Greg Ferrara calls "predatory action by dominant retailers in the grocery marketplace," in his The Shelby Report piece. With many of the nation's biggest grocery chains eating into the limited supply of the nation's goods, independents are left with fewer options and paying more for products. "It’s a much deeper problem that has been exponentially magnified by pandemic-driven supply chain fluctuations—the non-enforcement of decades-old antitrust laws designed to level the playing field between independent community grocers and the largest chain retailers."
While NGA has submitted comments and testified to the Federal Trade Commission about the issue, the supply chain limitations are still affecting national and private label brands. That includes IGA Exclusive Brands, according to Senior Director of IGA Exclusive Brands Dan Muller, with vendors struggling to supply product to licensed distribution centers (LDCs).
Muller and the Exclusive Brand team have been working with suppliers to get back some discontinued items, and keeping IGA's Licensed Distribution Centers (LDCs) informed, which Muller says is key to overcoming this obstacle. "If we find out immediately that there's a lack of product, we can address it right away," Muller explains. "We might find suppliers we've never seen before, and we can be more nimble as to how we serve our clients."
For example, if a cookie supplier decides to prioritize a bigger chain store over IGA and they communicate that right away, the Exclusive Brand team can pivot to a new supplier with little disruption to the line. But if they don't find out about that decision until there aren't any more shipments of private label cookies, that creates a huge disruption in the line and there will be shortages until the team finds a new supplier who starts producing for IGA.
It's easy to see how opening up communication between IGA, vendors, and LDCs has helped keep wholesalers and retailers informed. "We're communicating about shortages, suspensions, discontinues, allocations—everything. It's been a tremendous help. We'll let them know: we're good on this product, we're going to be short here. This way, the wholesalers know what to expect," Muller says.
So what can retailers do to manage their shelves and expectations with shoppers when it comes to IGA Exclusive Brands? Ross and Muller recommend these tips:
Think ahead & place your orders now. "Pricing is going up, and supply is likely to become more limited in the coming weeks, so retailers should place their orders as fast as possible," Muller says.
Take advantage of what's available."Be aware of all of the items your LDC stocks in IGA Exclusive Brand, and stock your shelves with what's available," Muller says. The more IGA Exclusive Brand product you have, the more savings you can pass onto shoppers struggling to make ends meet as inflation rises.
Don't miss opportunities. Supply issues are continuing for national brands and private label alike, so don't miss this golden opportunity to substitute private label for an out-of-stock national brand. "Shopper forgiveness is a worthy gift," Ross says. "If they come in and ask for a name brand you don't have, check to see if you have the IGA Exclusive Brand equivalent. Often you'll be able to keep the sale, and introduce a new shopper to the IGA Exclusive Brand line at the same time."
Communicate with us. "Any questions at all or concerns, please let us know," asks Muller. "We need to rely on the retailers, the wholesalers, and our suppliers for information so we can respond quickly."
Ross agrees. "We have to fight this fight together. Supply chain is still going to be the biggest challenge that we have for the next year, or who knows how long. We will do everything we can to keep retailers in stock, but we need everyone's help."