Grocery clerk Liam Crawford stocks chips at New Leaf Market in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Local Business

The supply chain blues: How local grocers are dealing — and why you should get those holiday orders in early

With the holiday season approaching, local grocers like Staff of Life and New Leaf are doing what they can to procure favorite items. However, they anticipate customers are going to have to be flexible about the availability of some of those.

Since panicked hoards raided store shelves in March 2020, inadvertently causing a toilet paper shortage, supply chain issues have plagued grocery retailers.

“It’s basically my nightmare,” says James Kline, the retail coordinator at Staff of Life Market. Kline is responsible for securing goods for Staff of Life’s two retail locations, in Santa Cruz and Watsonville, and says it’s been a constant battle to find all the products people want and are familiar with.

With the holiday season approaching, he anticipates customers are going to have to be flexible about the availability of some of their favorite holiday items.

“A lot of companies just either aren’t producing them or we can’t get them where we’re at,” says Kline. He says it’s difficult to find certain holiday-specific products, such as marzipan, tapioca pearls and pie crust, because it’s risky for manufacturers to produce them. Some items, like certain flavors of meatless alternatives or gluten-free items, might not be produced at all.

“You don’t know whether or not you’re going to sell 20% more of an item, because of the pandemic, or 10% less. So I think people would rather fall short and run out,” explains Kline. “On our side, the customers just want what they want. They don’t understand the fact that if we can’t get it, they can’t have it. They just get upset about it.”

Finding enough all-natural, hormone-free meat has also been a challenge for the natural foods store. “It’s already made in smaller quantities, and it takes longer to make because they’re harvesting the animals later in their lives and are not pumping them full of hormones or just slaughtering chickens super quickly, for instance,” he says. “So they can’t make them fast enough to feed the supply that’s needed.”

The Staff of Life in Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Staff of Life has an advantage over larger, corporate grocery chains because it is independent and locally owned. With just two retail stores, it is able to quickly maneuver among vendors to secure similar products when one is unavailable. But many of the problems facing grocery stores are beyond its control. Packaging supplies are a major obstacle, says Kline. Last year, a monthslong glass shortage left many vendors unable to package their products.

Shipping is another issue. Despite overwhelming demand, truck drivers are leaving the industry because of low pay and poor working conditions: “There aren’t enough trucks or truck drivers to move all the products around that everybody needs.”

There aren’t enough trucks or truck drivers to move all the products around that everybody needs.

Orders often arrive only partially fulfilled, if they arrive at all, which is driving some retailers to order more than they actually need. “Retailers are over-ordering because everything is in such high demand. They’re hoarding things because they don’t want to be out of them. So that whole mentality is not good for the whole situation,” says Kline.

On top of all this, grocery stores are grappling with a labor shortage. “Nobody wants to work in retail because of the danger of being in the pandemic,” he says. “And also the wages are somewhat low for what the risk is. So there’s not a lot of people coming in to work these days.

“We’re all super stressed and worked pretty thin, and then we’ve got people throwing a fit because we don’t have their favorite flavor of baked beans, yet we have four flavors of baked beans, just not the one that they are used to,” says Kline. “Being a little bit more flexible and being able to find substitutions and make it work would make everybody a whole lot happier.”

He asks that customers be mindful of these issues as they shop during the holidays. “Just having people have some compassion for others and not be selfish would go a long way for us,” says Kline. Still, he’s proud of the job he and his staff have done to provide products for customers despite a multitude of persistent challenges.

“We’re really good at what we do here,” he says. “I’ve looked around at other stores and shelves are very sparse and there’s a lot out of stock. If we can’t get something, if there is a suitable replacement we find it and get it in there immediately. So chances are if you come here you’ll find at least something like what you’re looking for.”

Grocery clerk Liam Crawford stocks chips at New Leaf Market in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

New Leaf Market, one of the area’s other favorite grocers, has also struggled with supply shortages since the early days of the pandemic. “We are staying positive as we head into the holidays and we know that our distribution partners are doing their best to fulfill every order with timely delivery and adjusting as needed based on product availability,” Associate Brand Manager Lindsay Gizdich said via email.

Just to be safe, New Leaf is encouraging customers to order their Thanksgiving and December holiday meals well in advance on its reservation site to “take the guesswork out of shopping for bigger meals.” Gizdich also advises shopping early for pantry staples and other shelf-stable groceries, and taking advantage of home delivery and curbside pickup for last-minute additions.

André Beauregard, a third-generation owner at Shopper’s Corner grocery store in Santa Cruz, says that he and his staff have had to get really creative with their sourcing throughout the pandemic. Early on, when paper products were in short supply, they reached out to vendors they wouldn’t normally deal with.

Shopper's Corner.
(Via Shopper’s Corner)

“Hotel vendors, restaurant vendors, anyone who had something to sell that we could buy from,” Beauregard said via email. “The prices weren’t always great but it was better than having nothing.” Later, he added, when there was no flour or rice available in user-friendly packaging, Shopper’s Corner purchased 50-pound bags and repackaged flour, rice and beans. “It’s been a bit of an adventure at times to just have product to sell.”

Beauregard feels Shopper’s Corner has gotten pretty good at staying one step ahead, and has already been buying for the holidays for the past several weeks. However, he admits there are some holiday items customers might have to go without.

“What I see being the obstacles will be all those imported specialty products and liquors that are getting stuck in [shipping] containers,” says Beauregard. “One example of a product like this is a popular Beaujolais Nouveau wine we sell. Traditionally it’s released on Beaujolais Day a week before Thanksgiving. It’s an age-old harvest/holiday tradition. This year we won’t have it until after the holiday has passed. We do have many other great options, so people will just have to adapt and get something else wonderful in its place.”

He recognizes that he certainly isn’t the only one grappling with supply chain issues: “It’s the same thing with everything else really, but if we can, we are getting it all in early so we can be ready to best serve our community.”