As the entire East Coast (or at least the parts of East Coast that knew the storm was coming) prepared for winter storm Jonas, an image became increasingly common on social media streams and local news reports. Grocery store shelves picked dry, consumers have bought up every inch of bread, milk, French toast and every other earthly edible one could imagine. Wanted a BLT to go with that blizzard? Better have shopped early, because bacon, tomatoes and lettuce were all at a premium depending on where one was shopping this weekend.
Two words: storage capacity — and a simple reality that there is only so much the back room can hold.
Planning for regular food usage is an area of logistical science unto itself, and planning for peak usage is notoriously difficult.
“We start pre-planning pretty much immediately,” Giant spokesman Jamie Miller told The Washington Post. In this case, it was Monday, when a large storm started to seem inevitable. “That involves coordination with our vendors who provide direct delivery to our stores, as well as increasing orders through our own supplies.”
Giant is owned by Ahold which is also the owner of the New England-based Stop&Shop chain, which gets somewhat more regularly pelted by snow than the average chain. The strategy for big, and often unexpected, upswings in peak usage for stores is rather similar to what the airlines are doing these days: watching meteorologists and coordinating demand response. Since vendors often deliver to larger grocery chains daily, those chains will request push ups in orders for the storm staples such as bread, milk, water and batteries.
However, there is a finite amount of space that stuff can be kept in, and perishables can’t just be left in the open for various health concern reasons. That means once the daily load is in and sold out, that’s going to be in until the next day. Grocery stores additionally need to as much as possible stay open during storms, meaning generators, dry ice and skeleton crews need to be kept on hand.