Supermarket Shelves Are Empty Again. How to Shop Strategically During the Omicron Surge

Woman wearing a mask examines groceries with one hand on her cart.

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It's beginning to feel like the start of the pandemic -- and not in a good way.

Key points

  • The omicron surge is exacerbating supply chain issues, leading to poorly stocked grocery stores.
  • Consumers may need to change how they shop to put food on the table without having to pay a premium for it.

Many of us remember the early days of the pandemic, when grocery store staples were hard to come by and buying toilet paper meant waking up at 3 a.m. to wait online while big-box stores restocked. Thankfully, we're not quite back to that point. But in some parts of the country, consumers are once again grappling with empty supermarket shelves. We can thank a combination of factors for that -- supply chain backlogs made worse by the omicron surge.

Supply chain hold-ups have been causing inventory shortages since the summertime. But the latest wave of COVID-19 infections, fueled by the highly transmissible omicron variant, has only exacerbated the problem. With so many people having to stay out of work due to being infected with or exposed to COVID-19, it's getting harder than ever to transport goods across the country and get them from delivery trucks and storage rooms into grocery store aisles.

The result? A string of very frustrated shoppers.

If you're struggling with limited supermarket inventory, you may be stuck in a position where you're forced to replace lower-cost items with higher-priced ones, straining your budget in the process. The last thing you should have to do right now is dip into your savings or rack up debt to stock your pantry and fridge. Here are a few tips for navigating the current dearth of supermarket products.

1. Plan your meals carefully

You may not have the widest selection of supermarket staples to choose from these days. That's why it's important to make the most of the items you can find. If pasta is in short supply and you can only find rice, make that the centerpiece of your meals instead.

2. Stock up if you have picky eaters at home

Parents, this one's for you. If your child will absolutely only eat chicken nuggets for dinner, and only a specific brand at that, then load up on that item once you see it available. If it flies off the shelf, your local supermarkets may not get it back in stock for weeks at a time.

That said, while it's okay to stock up on a specific item you know is essential to your household, be careful about buying in bulk in general. Not only might you run into storage space constraints, but you could get stuck in a scenario where you end up throwing away spoiled food -- and throwing your money away as a result.

3. Find out when your go-to supermarket gets its deliveries

You may have a preferred time to shop for groceries during the week, like Wednesday evenings or Saturday afternoons. But if your preferred supermarket gets the bulk of its deliveries first-thing Tuesday, you may want to set your alarm early and aim to do your shopping right as those trucks are being unloaded. Doing so could spell the difference between snagging the things you need and having to go without them.

It's bad enough that inflation is making grocery prices soar. Now, inventory issues are making the whole food-shopping experience nothing but a miserable mess. The good news is the current situation won't last forever. But for the time being, you'll need to shop strategically until things take a turn for the better.

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