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.

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