Covid 19 Omicron outbreak: Why are supermarket shelves empty

Long delivery waits and bare supermarket shelves have local shoppers changing the way they buy their groceries, with one family having to travel to another town for what they need.

Certain convenience food, pet food and baking ingredients are among items missing from supermarket aisles as staff struggle to keep shelves filled.

As Covid cases have risen, so have the number of people off work, with supermarkets being one of many businesses impacted by staffing and supply issues.

A walk down some of Rotorua’s supermarket aisles shows items such as pet food, sugar and yoghurt are in low supply.

Most shelves were full about midday on Tuesday. Cheaper brands appeared more likely to be missing, but there were alternatives for most products.

Aisles with convenience products were generally sparse.

Some supermarkets had signs on in-demand items, such as baking ingredients, which explained the situation or imposed limits on the items.

“We sincerely apologise if the product that you are looking for is unavailable,” one read.

“Our team and supply chain are working hard to get stock on shelves as soon as possible.

“Please continue to be kind and take only what you need.”

Kawerau’s Rob Rhyndress said his family of three have been “dangerously low” on baby formula twice.

There were limited tins of the formula in the only supermarket in the town.

He said this was “stressful” and the couple had to shop first thing to try to get some before it sold out. When there was nothing, they had to get it from a Whakātane supermarket.

His partner, Roxanne Saynes, works nightshift at Whakātane Hospital while he works in Mount Maunganui.

Between their hours, they had limited time to go to the supermarket when shelves were stocked.

“Add to that when we finally find some, we’re only allowed two cans,” Rhyndress said.

He said it was especially concerning given it was an essential item for their daughter who needed the formula for medical reasons.

Frank Willis said he usually did his shopping online due to health problems, but a five-day wait on delivery meant this was not an option.

Last week, he drove to three supermarkets trying to find what he and his wife needed.

“The way things are going it looks like it will be the same again for our next shop.”

Rotorua shopper Kirsty Martin said when she went shopping for her elderly mum’s groceries half the items on her list were not available at her local Countdown.

“Petrol prices stopped me from travelling all over town to look in other places.”

Lynmore resident Harriet McCormick gets her groceries delivered.

She had not found any problem being able to get a delivery slot because she did it every week at the same time, but said some items had to be swapped for alternatives in the past few weeks.

She said items like bread, nappies and cheese had become more expensive in the past few weeks.

Some shoppers had noticed customers taking out their frustration on staff, and shopper Trudi Philips was supportive of supermarket employees.

“Big ups to the staff who are turning up every day, covering shifts of workmates who are unable to work, and still doing their best despite not being able to fill their shelves.”

Jessica Law said she had noticed bare shelves at her local shop.

“I only got two-thirds of my groceries and most items were not the brands I usually get, which isn’t all bad.”

Pet food was an issue, however, and she needed to visit the pet store to buy it instead.

“It’s interesting that we are constantly told there is plenty of food and not to panic buy, yet we are unable to buy the basics when we need them.”

Maryanne Kilburn struggled to get cat food.

“I have had to buy expensive food as the usual cat food I get is not available at the moment.”

She had the same problem with cheap, sugar-free drinks.

“My husband and I have type 2 diabetes so these drinks are great for those of us on really tight budgets, but two supermarkets have empty shelves most weeks now.”

Foodstuffs did not provide answers to specific questions from the Rotorua Daily Post regarding regional stock levels, demand, delivery times and the number of drivers available.

The company owns the New World, Four Square and Pak’nSave brands.

Corporate affairs manager Emma Wooster said as more team members were required to isolate there might be changes in-store during the Omicron peak.

This included potentially reducing the opening times of individual stores and limiting the number of products customers can buy in one shop.

If customers were unable to shop in-store because they are vulnerable, feeling unwell, or were isolating at home, she encouraged them to ask a friend or neighbour to shop for them, or use the online and Click & Collect services.

“Additionally, Student Volunteer Army have reinstated their grocery delivery service in partnership with New World, predominantly to support people with Covid-19.”

She said it was not increasing prices directly because of Covid-19, and food prices always varied with product demand, seasonality, and weather.

Countdown also did not provide any answers to specific questions but a spokesperson said there were about 1900 staff members off work across the country.

“With fewer people working right across the supply chain, including those of our suppliers, we are seeing impacts on the amount of stock we can get on to shelves at any one time.”

There were fewer delivery slots available and supply chain impacts meant customers would see more substitutions in their orders.

“Our team is doing their best to ensure our customers, particularly those who are staying at home and isolating, can get what they need, but it is challenging at the moment.”

They said vulnerable or self-isolating customers could use its Priority Assistance Service.

“The key thing is that there is plenty of food and groceries to go around – it’s just taking longer to get through.”

On Tuesday morning there were slots available that day, but by mid-morning, the next available slot was four days away.

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