Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Five Walmarts, one can of carrots and de facto food-price inflation

I had a day off last week, two days before Thanksgiving, so I decided I’d do a partial “dry run” of the first of a series of marathon shopping trips I’ve been planning along a 150-mile stretch of a major highway. From one end of this route to the other, there are no fewer than nine 24-hour Walmart Supercenters (and two or three other stores open until midnight). I had enough time that day to travel to five of the stores. What I discovered surprised me, and I hope my experience serves as a wakeup call for anyone who has been lazy with their prepping. Waiting to stock up is the biggest mistake any of us could make.

I work nights so it’s usually easiest for me to travel from early evening to early morning — the hours I usually keep anyway. The first caveat I’ll offer for those of you who do your preps shopping at night is that at most big-box stores, items are still being restocked throughout the night and into the morning, so IF something you need isn’t on the shelf, it might be coming up. Or you might just be out of luck.

Since I was just doing a “dry run” and not a full-fledged shopping trip, at the first store I decided to get just one package of each item I had on my list to see how long it would take on average to navigate the aisles I needed to go to, then extrapolate that time over the number of stores I planned to visit — since food items are clustered together, I figured that the time spent picking up assorted non-food items around the store would be a better indication of how long it would take to navigate each store, then once I had picked up those items I would finish my shopping in the grocery section.

In the health and beauty section, I picked up a toothbrush, a bottle of Great Value brand amber mouthwash (a great oral disinfectant in addition to brushing), a package of dental floss and a package of Lava soap. In the sporting goods section, I picked up a box of ammo, a bottle of gun cleaner and gun oil and a magnesium fire starter kit. In the men’s clothing section, I picked up a pair of gloves and a package of socks.

Then I headed for the grocery section. And a lesson in both de facto food-price inflation and just-in-time inventory procedures.

To keep things simple on this test-run, I planned on grabbing just four grocery items–a case of Great Value canned salmon, a bag of Great Value pinto beans, a container of Great Value oatmeal and (my exception to my one-item rule) a case each of Great Value canned spinach and Great Value canned sliced carrots. I use each of these items on a regular basis, so of course I thought everything would be right where it always was. Boy, was I wrong. And I didn’t realize how wrong I was until I got to the fifth Walmart.

At the first store, I found everything I was looking for, and in fairly ample supply. Except for the canned carrots. There wasn’t a single can of Great Value canned carrots on the shelf. So I flagged down an employee, apologized for the trouble since everyone was trying to keep the shelves full in the leadup to Thanksgiving (this was about 10 p.m. on Tuesday, and Thanksgiving of course was Thursday) and asked the employee if they could check to see if there were any cases of Great Value carrots, and if not, could they tell me how many might be in stock elsewhere? The employee came back, said that according to their computerized inventory they were totally out of Great Value carrots at that store, but that there were 96 cans–a mere eight cases–at the nearest warehouse. I thanked the employee for all of his help, picked up another case of spinach in lieu of the canned carrots and headed for the checkout.

After loading my stuff in the car, I drove to the other 24-hour Walmart in town, with a nagging thought in my mind: What if the second store was out of carrots as well? How far was I willing to drive to find Great Value carrots? Wouldn’t it be a lot less trouble if I just settled for the name-brand carrots that were in ample supply on the shelves, instead of insisting on the Great Value brand? Well, yes, but if the less-expensive generic brand is out of stock and I have to settle for the more-expensive name brand, I’d have to pay more if I really wanted carrots.

And THAT is another angle of food price inflation: Great Value carrots didn’t get any more expensive. I just didn’t get there in time to get the cheaper brand. And so it would cost me more because someone else beat me to those carrots.

But hey, there are 96 cans at the warehouse, right?

ONLY 96 cans of carrots in the local warehouse of the largest retailer in the world. How many other shoppers are looking for Great Value carrots at this moment? But it didn’t really matter–because the carrots were at the warehouse and not on the store shelf. I was flat out of luck. So on to the next store I went.

I hit pauper’s pay dirt at the second Walmart–I got the LAST CAN of Great Value carrots on the shelf! Seeing a manager nearby, I flagged her down and asked her if she could tell me if there were any cases of carrots in the stockroom that weren’t yet on the shelf, and upon checking her computer she also told me that there were 96 cans of carrots at the nearest warehouse, but that I had apparently gotten the last can of Great Value carrots in the store.

Flash back to the mid-1980s when parents were literally fighting in the aisles of toy stores to get the last Cabbage Patch Kids right before Christmas. I felt that lucky. But suddenly I had a sense of vulnerability — what if this was the last can of food in the entire store? I’d be at ground-zero for a mob of hungry, angry people. But you know that moment is coming at some point — and someone will end up getting the very last can of something. And they’ll be in the crosshairs of everyone else who feels entitled to THAT last can and who will do anything to get it. Some of you may have seen this video (http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=2de_1290808778) of a mob trampling people to get into a Target store at 4 a.m. on Black Friday. How bad will things be when mobs trample people to get into grocery stores at 4 a.m. because they didn’t stock up when they should’ve because they blew all of their money on expensive toys?

At the third Walmart, again there were no Great Value carrots on the shelf. I flagged down the stocker at the end of the aisle and asked him if he could tell if there were any carrots waiting to be stocked. He walked over to a pallet that was about a 5-foot cube on each side, walked around it while looking at it up and down, then shook his head and apologized that he didn’t have any carrots.

Stop and think about this scene for a moment: I’m average height, about 5-foot-9, and I’m taller than this pallet of canned goods that’s being unloaded for this particular aisle for this day. That’s not a lot of food! Statistics show that grocery stores rotate through their entire inventory in about three days–Google the phrase “nine meals away from anarchy”–but if there’s a sudden surge in business, whether it’s an unexpected weather event (remember “Snowmageddon” last winter?), a natural disaster (look at the looting that occurred after Hurricane Katrina) or a sudden economic panic that sends everyone running to stores before prices spike upward (like gas prices after Katrina), you aren’t going to have stuff on the shelves very long at all, much less when you want those things at your fingertips at any time. Maybe this wasn’t the only pallet of canned goods being unloaded for this particular aisle. But then again, I wasn’t going to be the only shopper! And if the guy in front of me decided he was going to buy everything I wanted, it didn’t matter what was going to come in tomorrow, or next week, or maybe not at all. I was just plain out of luck.

So then it was on to the fourth Walmart — and again there was not a single can of Great Value carrots on the shelf nor in the stockroom, according to a store associate. So I picked up another case of canned spinach and, for variety, a case of fruit cocktail, paid for my items and set off for the fifth store. I forgot to ask the associate at the fourth store if there were any carrots in the warehouse (although this store was two counties away from the first store and may use a different warehouse).

I got to the fifth store, again finding no Great Value canned carrots on the shelf, so I flagged down a manager and asked if they could tell if there were any carrots back in the stockroom. He checked his computer and said that while they were out of the carrots at this store, another store in the next town (a store I had previously not known about) had 63 cans of carrots in stock — but they were not a 24-hour store, didn’t open until 7 a.m., and in fact had to close early the previous evening because a semi had hit a major power line and knocked out power at the store. The fact that there were 63 cans of carrots SOMEWHERE did me absolutely no good because there was no way to obtain them at that time.

The thing about “just-in-time” inventory is that it’s just-in-time for the store–not for the customer. You have absolutely no guarantee that you’ll be able to get what you want if you don’t get it now, and even if you want to wait for something, how long will it be before an item is back on the shelves? At a couple of the Walmarts, I asked the manager if they knew how long it might be before they got more carrots in stock — but they said they had no way to tell. Four stores had no Great Value canned carrots at all. I got the last can at another store. Another store had 63 cans, but they were out of reach until the next morning — and who knows how many other people might be waiting for the store to open and rush to get that very product because every other store was out of it? It doesn’t take a major leap of logic to realize that this will happen when items are in short supply — and how impolite, unruly or even violent will people get when they clamor to get the last item out of your hands because you have it and they want it?


So as I noted above, there are nine 24-hour Walmarts along a 150-mile stretch of highway leading to my town. It could take anywhere from 8 to 12 hours to go to the other end of the route and then go to each store one by one, picking up all of the items I’m trying to stock up on, and finally unloading at my house at the end of the trip. But since we’ve already seen that just because there’s a 24-hour Walmart that there’s no guarantee something will be on the shelf, what kind of fool would I be just to give up and go home? I’d be a hungry fool! But let’s do the math on best-case scenarios on what I COULD get, if everything (including Great Value canned carrots!) is on the shelf. Let’s say that at each of the nine Walmarts, I’m able to get at least a case of carrots or other canned vegetables, a case of canned fruit, a case of canned salmon, 10 lbs. of dry beans and five 42-ounce containers of oatmeal (an average shopping trip for me, not counting refrigerated or frozen items). If I’m able to pick up at least this much of these items at each of the nine 24-hour Walmarts on my route, I’ll arrive home with 108 cans of vegetables, 108 cans of fruit, 108 cans of salmon, 90 lbs. of dry beans and almost 119 lbs. of oatmeal. That’s a pretty good start, and not bad for a day’s work! How long will it take to get a single sandwich or bowl of soup — if anything — if I have to wait in lines at soup kitchens or FEMA centers if I’m foolish enough to keep waiting instead of stocking up now?

And I wonder how many preppers lose sight of the big picture: It’s not how much food or water or ammo or anything else you have that’s important. What matters is how long you and your family will be self-sufficient and not dependent upon the government or other cash- or resource-strapped entities when disaster strikes. Unless a disaster strikes my neighborhood in a manner that directly impacts my house or my family’s lives, I don’t plan to leave my house in search of resources in the event of a disaster. I will either make sure I have as close to everything I need before disaster strikes, or I and my family will find a substitute or do without. If you’re not working on becoming self-sufficient, you’re missing the whole reason you should be prepping. Not only do self-sufficient people ease the strain on scarce or nonexistent resources, but they are in a position to help others during those stuff-hits-the-fan events. It doesn’t take a lot of time or effort to stock up compared to the amount of time wasted in line waiting for help when you could be at home with your loved ones taking care of each other, or helping others. If you plan to wait on stocking up or otherwise becoming self-sufficient because everything looks fine right now, you could be the next disaster waiting to happen.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Attention, grocery shoppers: Empty shelves on aisle 8!

An open letter to a random grocery customer:

I'm the guy who was in line in front of you yesterday with 10 cases of canned vegetables in my cart. I'll admit that I was slightly amused at the look on your face -- it's not every day that someone clears out all the canned spinach, tomatoes and carrots and then ends up in front of you in the checkout lane. But I hope that what I said to you during the three minutes or so that we chatted will sink in and that you'll realize that I could be the person in front of you at the store next time, with the last canned goods or other food items in my cart, and because I got there first, you're too late. Again.

Now, I'm not saying that I want to have all of the food for myself and leave nothing for everyone else -- I'm not saying that at all. What I'm saying is that SOMEONE has to get the last can or box or jar or bottle of something. And if for whatever reason the trucks can't make it into town, or if they stop rolling altogether, then you'll wish you'd stocked up before I did.

Think back to when you saw me yesterday. It had snowed the day before, and I'm sure there were dozens of people, maybe even hundreds, on their way to get food AFTER the storm started. But there were probably a lot more people who stocked up BEFORE the storm hit, and so there was a lot fewer items on the shelves when the snow finally came. That's just the nature of business in general -- stuff gets bought up, then gets restocked eventually...but depending on any of various circumstances, you might be waiting a day. Or two. Or seven. Or longer. If you want tomatoes, carrots or spinach, I left a couple dented cans on the shelves...if you want to take a chance.

People who'd been paying attention realized that a storm was coming, so they acted accordingly and bought what they needed before the storm hit. I wasn't at the store yesterday because I was among the stragglers; rather, I'd seen the ads for 50-cent canned vegetables and hoped that nobody else would've bought all of them in the pre-storm rush. And sure enough, I hit the jackpot -- 120 cans of spinach, tomatoes and carrots for just over 65 bucks. Not a bad deal while there was still anything left. You might be thinking that it's not fair that I got the last cans of certain things and that I left certain shelves with nothing on them. Well, if everyone else was wanting what I was buying, why didn't they come in and buy everything before I got there? Nobody else seemed to want canned tomatoes, spinach or carrots, or else they would've been there getting the cans off of the shelves before I did. It's not my fault that I got there first; maybe others should've gotten to the vegetable aisle a few minutes earlier. Or maybe they should've stocked up even sooner.

If I'm worried that someone else might acquire the last of something before I do, I'll head to that aisle first, pick up what I want from that aisle, then go on with my other shopping. I wanted to get a few cans of vegetables to add to my storage pantry that I've been steadily filling for some time. But I had to start somewhere, right? I had to buy that first can...or case...or cartful...of vegetables at some point. You can do the same thing...after the store shelves are restocked. Unless I get there sooner and buy what you plan to get later.

But don't worry! Most grocery stores know what's on their shelves at any given moment. Automated "just-in-time" inventory systems let stores know exactly when they are out of a product, so they'll know when it's time to order more. But the problem is that what you want might not get there as soon as you want it. I don't know if you had to shovel much snow to get your car out of your driveway to get to the store yesterday; I'd listened to the forecast and put salt on my driveway early to prevent the snow from building up in the first place. But just because I planned ahead to keep snow off of my driveway and got to the store first, I had no guarantee (nor did you) that anything would be on the shelves. The northern part of the state has gotten walloped with 10 or more inches of snow in many places -- and if the storm hits fast enough and hard enough, then delivery traffic grinds to a halt. It doesn't matter how quickly the warehouse knows that the store is out of something if the conditions on the road keep the trucks from being able to deliver the groceries. I might be prepared to go to the store at any time, but if conditions aren't conducive to allowing the trucks to get there with the goods, it doesn't matter how prepared I am to go shopping.

That's the problem with just-in-time inventory: Everything depends on the strength of the weakest link in the system. And if that weakest link goes down, all other links are useless. I've got cash to buy food, and the grocery store has plenty of shelf space...but the truck is stuck in a blizzard 200 miles away. Not much I can do at that point if I haven't already done something.

Which brings me back to my earlier point. I've got one relative who started saving up for retirement 40 years ago. I've got another relative who has been saving for only 10 years. You can guess which one of them probably has a few more dollars saved up, precisely because they started much earlier and kept on saving. I don't know how much food or other necessities you have stocked up on at home in case emergencies hit and the store shelves are empty. I didn't see any spinach, carrots or tomatoes in your cart. Maybe you already had those items at home. If so, congratulations -- and thanks for leaving me a few cans. On the other hand, I might have more of certain things in my pantry because I started stocking up on food before you did. But I had to start somewhere.

It's great to have plenty of food and other necessities on hand at home so that when a storm comes, I don't have to choose between being hungry at home and hoping there's food left at the store. I bought what I needed early, so I didn't have to go out when the storm hit. I'm not saying you should buy everything all at once -- this isn't the first time I've bought a few cans of vegetables. But you might want to start stocking up on what you need as soon as possible for your and your family's sake -- and keep on stocking up. You don't know when the storms are coming or how long they will last. And the last cans of food could be about to leave the store.

Black Friday mobs trample people at Target, AKA stupid shoppers miss the point

Here’s a video from yesterday — “Black Friday” — showing mobs of shoppers trampling people to get inside a Target store at 4 a.m. for pre-Christmas sales of, well, stupid stuff. If stuff was really important, smart people would have gotten it already and wouldn’t let themselves run out of it (stuff like food, water, etc.). This video is exactly why you need to stock up NOW. In the event of a major (or even minor) disaster, when everyone panics and runs to the store, it doesn’t take long at all for the shelves to be stripped bare of everything important. And if the event (or multiple events) has enough of a ripple effect across the country, there’s no guarantee that the shelves will be restocked anytime soon.



I don’t know about you, but there has been at least one time in my life when I’ve been hungry — VERY hungry — for several months. And it really sucked. I was much worse off financially at that time than I am at the moment, and at that time in 1998 I didn’t have the foresight, much less the financial means, to stock up on food and other things so that I’d have a comfortable cushion to hold me over during tough times. If you’re throwing your money away at 4 a.m. “door-buster” sales for junk you don’t need to survive and failing to use your money WISELY to buy things you really need to survive when the going gets tough — and I don’t think we’ve seen anywhere near tough times yet — then there’s nothing I can do to convince you of a prudent course of action. If you have money to blow at sales like in the video above, then you have PLENTY of money you could otherwise use for food and vital necessities. You’re just spending your money on the wrong things. And you’d better switch gears before it’s too late.

I’ll post an update in the next couple days on a recent multi-Walmart shopping experience that perfectly illustrates why “just-in-time” inventory procedures give you absolutely no guarantee that you’ll be able to find what you’re looking for, when you’re looking for it. If you don’t stock up on what you need now — and stock up on MONTHS worth of it at the very least — there’s absolutely no guarantee you’ll be able to get it when you need it most. Especially if you have to fight mobs at 4 a.m. to get it.