When the governor encouraged Pennsylvanians to stay at home to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, people swiftly headed to area grocery stores to stock up.
Faced with a two week quarantine at home, shoppers hoarded toilet paper, eggs, bread and meat. While a snowstorm might cause some panic-buying, this was on another level.
I stopped at my local Redner’s Market for chicken, only to find the chicken aisle bare. Cleaned out. Not a breast. Not a thigh. Not a chicken wing to be found.
“It is across all stores,” said Eric White, director of marketing for Reading-based Redner’s Markets, which is an independent chain of supermarkets with locations throughout Pennsylvania. “We are experiencing challenges with distribution and supply.”
While the amount of food available was adequate for a normal week, when customers flooded stores last week the regular supply was quickly diminished. To stop the hoarding, Redner’s is allowing store managers to set limits on the number of items customers can buy of certain foods, like toilet paper or meat.
“We are getting regular shipments of beef, baking items, and bread, but we can’t get it on the shelves fast enough,” said White. “We are getting four times the normal buying traffic, and replenishing product and trying to get ahead is challenging.”
Under normal operating conditions there would be enough food on the shelves, but when customers over-buy items, it drains inventory and warehouses and supermarkets have to catch up. There is no food shortage, it is that the customers are over-buying.
“It’s not at the level of last week now,” White said. “It is slowing down. And we are putting limits in place. It’s all hands on deck and we are doing our best to get the food on the shelves.”
White also said that due to the massive buy out of certain items like eggs, there have been commodity price shifts. “The price of eggs jumped over 200 percent,” he said.
“We understand the burdens placed on the stores,” White added. “We understand the guests’ fears.”
Redner’s is reducing store hours and closing earlier every day to restock items and clean and sanitize the store. The chain is also giving all store employees $2-an-hour raises until the crisis passes.
“All praise goes to our store folks,” White said. “They have been positive and up for the challenge. They are going about their business. We could not be more proud.”
The ‘buy local’ movement has been steadily growing over the past several years.
“There is a movement, and the restaurant industry really started it with the farm-to-table movement,” said James Ogden, an Allentown-based retail business consultant.
But the movement has spread into grocery sales as well.
Ogden said people are inspired by the idea that they’re eating healthier and supporting the local economy.
Instead of buying goods trucked in from around the U.S. – or even the world – consumers are putting more of an emphasis on buying goods, especially food, from their own communities, and larger retailers are paying attention.
But grocers say they see the consumer demand leaning towards more locally sourced food and they are adapting.
“Our preference is to source locally whenever possible,” said Bob Grammer, Center Valley market vice president for Aldi grocery stores a chain of Germany-based discount grocery stores with outlets in 20 countries. Aldi has stores in the Allentown, Reading, Lancaster and Harrisburg areas.
Roots of a trend
Seasonal farmers markets have been popping up in most every community from Easton, which boasts the nation’s oldest outdoor farmers market, to downtown markets in Allentown, Bethlehem, Emmaus and beyond.
Easton has even opened a year-round market where consumers can buy local produce and products, while in Bethlehem plans are moving ahead for a co-op grocery store that will concentrate on goods that are locally grown and produced.
“It’s certainly becoming a trend,” said Colleen Marsh, board secretary of the Bethlehem Food Co-Op.
Many consumers say they chose local markets because chain grocery stores rely too heavily on importing food from larger producers, forgetting the local farms in their community.
And there is a great deal of money at stake.
Greater Lehigh Valley households, including Lehigh, Northampton and Berks counties, spend an estimated $3.5 billion on food every year.
Only about $15.6 million of that is spent per year for food purchased directly from a farmer according to Buy Fresh Buy Local Lehigh Valley.
But it’s a growing number, and it’s a piece of the market larger food retailers are actively seeking to recapture.
Allison Czapp, director of Buy Fresh Buy Local Lehigh Valley, said she’s seen many grocery store chains respond to people seeking out fresher, more local produce. The stores, she said are going out of their way to promote themselves as a resource for local foods.
She cited Pennsylvania-based grocers like Redner’s Markets and Weis Markets as having good selections of local produce. In their front windows the stores actively advertise locally grown produce next to signs advertising the week’s sale items.
Carlisle-based Giant Food Stores, meanwhile, has officially introduced a PA Preferred program, under which it labels all items that are grown and produced in the state. The program is run by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
Giant, a division of Holland-based Ahold Delhaize, has more than 180 stores across Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia and it has similar programs in other states.
Matt Simon, chief marketing officer for Giant, said the program helps people who want to buy local find local items.
He said a wide range of foods, from vegetables to snack foods, are being labeled as from Pennsylvania, among them: are Chester County snack maker Herr’s; Guers Dairy of Tamaqua; Kreider Farms of Lancaster County; beer-maker Appalachian Brewing Co. of Harrisburg; Musselman’s, an applesauce producer in Adams County; and Tom Sturgis Pretzels of Shillington.
Simon said the PA Preferred label lets customers know that the product has been certified as a Pennsylvania product by the state Department of Agriculture and they can trust that it’s local.
“PA Preferred has credibility, which is why we think it’s so important that consumers know they’re buying something that is from Pennsylvania,” Simon said.
And as more large grocery store chains try to promote themselves as a source for local goods, that credibility is important, said Marsh.
Marsh said the buy-local movement is facing a similar problem with “greenwashing” that other environmentally friendly industries have confronted in which products aren’t necessarily what vendors say they are.
One of the big questions, she said, is, “how do you define local?”
Czapp said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has only recently begun tracking the sale of local produce because it’s become so popular, but it defines “local” as coming from within a range of up to 400 miles.
“People are going into stores thinking that they’re buying from local farmers and they’re not,” Czapp said.
Since the word “local” isn’t regulated, she said, a store can consider almost anything local – for example, they shipped it from somewhere else in the U.S. instead of importing it from Chile.
Marsh said another problem is mislabeling. She noted a prominent food co-op expert recently came to the Lehigh Valley to speak to her group and checked out the “local” sections in a couple of Lehigh Valley area grocery stores.
In one, he found a section marked as what was supposed to be local, farm-made cheeses, and he found cheese from Wisconsin and France on the shelf.
Marsh said she doesn’t think there’s any fraud going on, it’s just that in a rush to promote local offerings, stores may be placing products under the wrong labels without realizing it.
Nonetheless, she said, people may be making buying decisions based on whether they believe something is local, and French cheese is certainly not local.
So why are larger national and sometimes international chain stores so anxious to add local food sources, which often mean more pick-up locations and higher costs than their traditional supply chains?
There are two big reasons, Ogden said. The first is the halo effect it gives the stores. Buying local is seen as healthier and good for the local economy. And having trucks bring food from places nearby instead of far away reduces a store’s carbon footprint. Those are all important issues to socially conscious shoppers.
“We have the same stuff, and we’re helping the local farmer and giving them more money,” he said.
Local goods can also bring in more money.
Ogden said studies have shown that people are more likely to buy locally grown and made products and, more importantly, they’re willing to spend more money for them.
“If you can get fresh berries that were just picked, you’ll be willing to pay more for them,” he said.
Ultimately, Ogden said, stores might not be winning over new customers by promoting themselves as a source for local food and goods, but they might encourage them to spend a little more money while they’re shopping.
And while the larger chains may be looking to lure locally conscious shoppers from the smaller farm stands and markets, Marsh said she welcomes the competition to the food co-op. Her group is currently raising funds for the co-op’s construction
“The more outlets we have for local products the better for our health and for the economy,” she said.
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