Mustard, oils, biscuits, toilet paper: will we have to get used to the shortages?

Toilet paper, chocolate cakes, sunflower oil, mustard, not a month without shortages on the supermarket shelves. Shortages worry consumers without doing business for merchants.

Shortage ! This word has become common for consumers who see products disappear from the shelves. Each month, a new one is added to the list with different reasons (pandemic, war in Ukraine, drought, transport…) to see stock shortages and prices climb alarmingly.

Nothing is spared: from toilet paper to biscuit via mustard, cheese, butter, potatoes and of course energy such as electricity, gas and even wood pellets. Even some drugs have been affected by this phenomenon.

Some explanations on these worrying phenomena which confuse consumers and do not do the business of supermarkets.

• The end of abundance?

The images become familiar: empty supermarket shelves, difficult to find, even disputes over the last packet of flour or the last bottle of oil. In the daily Le Parisien, a representative of Système U recently assured that he had “never experienced supply disruptions at such a high level”.

There has been sunflower oil, since the invasion of Ukraine, a major producer of this plant, by Russia. Or toilet paper at the start of the Covid-19 epidemic in 2020. Since the start of the conflict in Ukraine, from the beginning of March to mid-August, it has been mustard, salad dressings, soft drinks, crisps, oils or poultry that have been received, according to a barometer established by the panelist NielsenIQ.

The fact remains that 96.4% of the references remained available on the shelves in August, according to this same source. But the rate of ruptures, which last an average of 4 days, is abnormally high in a country used to not missing anything.

• How are these ruptures explained?

Until the Covid-19 epidemic, supplying stores was a well-oiled machine. Before placing an order, merchants based themselves on sales during the same period in previous years, taking into account specific events such as end-of-year celebrations or the arrival of fine weather.

But since 2020, between confinements, teleworking and the impact of the war in Ukraine, the discounts are much less precise. All the players agree that it is above all the so-called “precautionary” purchases that empty the shelves: customers, hearing that the mustard harvests have been bad, or seeing that the shelves are already very bare, will be tempted to buy more of these products than usual, to store them at home.

“At least in June, we had no more mustard because we had achieved our figure for the year”, recently explained on RMC / BFMTV Michel-Edouard Leclerc, the president of the strategic committee of E.Leclerc stores. The French have bought in six months what the leading retailer offers to sell in a year.

“If I quote a brand” which could run out soon, “everyone will rush” to buy it, also said Michel-Edouard Leclerc.

This eagerness escapes the forecasting models of businesses, which will place orders at the same time, clogging up the supply chain. In addition, suppliers may be tempted to manufacture more expensively since available stocks are fiercely contested.

• Do traders have an interest in it?

If sunflower oil has made a comeback to stores, it’s often at higher prices, suggesting supermarkets are cashing in on the crisis. Professionals respond that these supplies cost them, as do packaging and transport. But since demand is high, some may have been tempted by higher prices.

In any case, traders do not like to leave shelves empty, which they see as loss of profit, earned by NielsenIQ at 2.7 billion euros since the beginning of the year. A figure to qualify, however, because it does not take into account the “oversales” made when the product is available on the shelves.

• Voluntary terminations?

Some breaks are chosen by professionals, whether agro-industrial or distributed. Fans of Mikado, Petit Ecolier, Pépito or Pim’s have recently noticed that some of their products were missing from the shelves. This is the consequence of the decision of the group that owns these brands, Mondelez, to “deep clean” a production site, following a salmonella alert in a Belgian factory of one of its chocolate suppliers, and after ensuring that no product offered for sale contains contaminated chocolate.

Another scenario: the waters of the Danone group, including Evian, Badoit, Volvic. In many Intermarché stores, they are no longer sold. No stoppage of production, but a disagreement between the manufacturer and the trader on the cost of purchase.

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