Supermarket shortages: 'Lumpy' supply chain likely in 2022

Supermarkets have had problems with stock shortages.
Libby Wilson/Stuff
Supermarkets have had problems with stock shortages.

Gaps on supermarket shelves continue, while some goods are stuck at wharves and others sit at distribution centres waiting for truck drivers.

Lower North Island Countdowns had stock shortages because of a truck accident this week, but missing supermarket items are not uncommon across New Zealand this busy holiday season.

Fresh Choice Greytown​ operations manager Steve Fennell​ said as soon as goods arrived they were put on shelves.

Charn Tiebtienrat
Whāngārei shopper Charn Tiebtienrat says shelves were bare at his local supermarket, Regent Countdown.

He was advised by a distributor before Christmas to “over order” because there was still a shortage of truck drivers, meaning delays in getting goods from distribution centres to retailers.

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He said that some items running low, such as toilet paper, canned tomatoes and pasta were Covid-19 related.

Foodstuffs Value brand canned tomatoes are out of stock at many of its supermarkets. It was reported late last year that along with a shortage of labour to harvest tomatoes, there was a worldwide shortage of tin cans.

“Covid is affecting supplies for things like canned tomatoes and packet macaroni, there are obvious delays now,” Fennell​ said.

“Italy had major labour shortage for the tomato harvest, and we are now seeing the effect of that.”

Transporting New Zealand​ chief executive Nick Leggett​ said there was a shortage of truck drivers.

His organisation conducted a survey in 2020 which found 35 per cent of trucking companies had a vehicle off the road because there was no one to drive it, and he said that remained the case.

Transporting New Zealand chief executive Nick Leggett wants to attract people to driving truck as a career.
Kris Dando/Stuff
Transporting New Zealand chief executive Nick Leggett wants to attract people to driving truck as a career.

He said before Christmas at a meeting in Invercargill 43 trucking business representatives reported needing 90 more drivers between them.

Leggett​ said losing the migrant workforce because of Covid-19 border closures was an issue he wanted to be addressed. He has asked the Government for truck drivers to be on the priority workforce list for migrant labour.

“We need more drivers, and companies do use some migrant labour and these vacancies need filling or delays will continue across New Zealand,” he said.

Delays at the ports were another issue contributing to gaps on shelves, Countdown spokesperson Kiri Hannifin said​.

“An example is lemons from America, which we have sitting on the wharf and local supply is limited,” Hannifin​ said.

Foodstuffs spokesperson Kate Ford​ said the supply chain was “lumpy” because of the effects of the pandemic, and would continue this way this year.

“If you see a gap on the supermarket shelf, and it’s an imported product, it’s likely to have been held up and back on-shelf soon.”

The price of lettuces and other greens is going up to cover labour costs.
BRYA INGRAM/STUFF
The price of lettuces and other greens is going up to cover labour costs.

Lettuce price and supply

Fresh produce is selling fast and there are gaps in the produce aisles. Iceberg lettuces were $5 or more a head in most supermarkets this week. Tomato prices were higher than last year.

Bagged lettuce and salads run out because they are grown and packed to a specified growing programme, Leaderbrand chief executive Richard Burke said. He said at peak demand different lines would just “drop out”.

Ford said the hot weather meant lettuces were “flying off the shelves” but the pre-Christmas rain and then hot weather were not the best growing conditions for lettuces but more were on their way.

KEVIN STENT/STUFF
Commerce Commission chairwoman Anna Rawlings presents the commission's draft report into the grocery sector in July.

Burke said the rising price of lettuces was linked to labour and environmental compliance costs.

He said shoppers should expect to see higher prices because growers had to cover increased costs and the labour shortage. He said the growers were aware that they could only grow what they could harvest and like strawberry growers, some had cut back the crop or dropped out of the industry because of this.

“Lettuces are hand-sown and hand-harvested and have to be high quality, and if the labour isn’t going to be available, the decision not to plant is made,” Burke said.

LeaderBrand chief executive Richard Burke and picker Anthony Westrupp checking the quality of freshly-harvested broccoli
Anne Boswell/Stuff
LeaderBrand chief executive Richard Burke and picker Anthony Westrupp checking the quality of freshly-harvested broccoli

Burke said there were a number of issues coming together which were leading to price increases such as rising land leasing costs for crops, increasing wages and demand for environmentally responsible packaging. He said all these costs would be reflected in prices.

“We are paying more for the right person rather than paying less to more people because the risk of not getting the right person is too costly,” Burke said.

“Producers could turn their land to cash crops like kiwifruit and grapes for wine, but we need to support lettuce and broccoli growers for example to survive.

“So much of our frozen vegetable supply now comes from overseas, and I don’t want this to happen to the fresh produce farmers here.”