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TinotopiaLog → Why The Grocery Store Is Always Out Of Things (24 May 2005)
Tuesday 24 May 2005

Why The Grocery Store Is Always Out Of Things

My comments on McDonalds’ (McDonald’s’? How do you do a possessive of a registered trademark that is itself already a possessive? McDonald’s themselves seem to prefer the ungrammatical ‘McDonald’s’ as the possessive, e.g. the large section about ‘McDonald’s commitment to diversity’ on their website. This is unpalatable because it seems to refer to something or someone called ‘McDonald’ and its or his commitment: Old McDonald had a diversity-enhancing, ‘minority’-boosting program, E I E I O. And through this program he hoped to avoid being sued, E I E I O. With a set-aside here, and a sensitivity initiative there, Old McDonald had his ass covered, E I E I O.)

Now where was I? Oh, yeah: my comments on some of McDonalds’ (damn them, I’ll do it my way) customer-service issues being rooted in their procedures’ inherent conflicts with logic and grammar seemed to strike a chord with a bunch of people, so I’m going to shamelessly attempt a repeat performance: Bart by the barrelful, I always say. Today, I will explain why my grocery store is always sold out of so many items.

Now, maybe your experience is different, but I find grocery shopping pretty frustrating. I generally patronize Martin’s in Front Royal. The Front Royal Martin’s is run by a guy who always wears a tie (so you can tell he’s the manager) but who seems to spend quite a bit of time in the store itself, rather than in his manager’s aerie counting doubloons or whatever it is most grocery-store managers do. Rarely do I go there and not see this guy in the aisles, stocking shelves, giving advice, or at least running around and giving a strong impression of Purpose.

This could just be a ruse, a George-Costanzian scheme of always appearing incredibly busy while actually doing nothing, but the odds are against it. I assume that this guy is at least an above-average grocery store manager, partly because of his visibility, and largely because the store itself is above average.

Oh, sure, there are some things that could use work: the salad bar’s closing seems tied mainly to the needs and desires of the staff, and not the needs and desires of Commerce; everything on the bottom layer in the fancy-cheese cooler tends to have been frozen at some point; the newspapers are badly placed; and the do-it-yourself tills are the inferior kind with the scales instead of the better (but larger) kind with the belts. These are, though, mainly minor things, and the store is, on the whole, good enough that I cannot understand how the competition (Food Lion) stays in business. The parking lots at both stores will attest to the fact that I am hardly the only person in Front Royal who prefers Martin’s to Food Lion.

The only, or at least the chief, fly in the ointment is that Martin’s is often out of things. Very, very rarely — if ever — can we get through a full shopping trip without at least one item on the list being out of stock. Most recently, it was Grape Nuts cereal.

I like Grape Nuts: so full of grapey and nutty goodness, they are. Eating Grape Nuts is like eating a bowl full of rocks, which is sometimes precisely what you need first thing in the morning. They make me feel like some kind of cartoon giant: I have been known to say ‘Fee Fie Fo Fum’ and to cackle maniacally while eating them.

But, the last time I bought Grape Nuts, it was at the hated Food Lion, because they were out of them at Martin’s — they were out of them for weeks.

And it’s not just Grape Nuts that they run out of. I went to the store today, and I took pictures of just some of the things that were out of stock:

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Note that today they did have Grape Nuts: but they’re well on their way to running out. They have plenty of South Beach Diet ‘wheats’, though.

I didn’t get pictures of everything they were out of, partly because I didn’t want to get thrown out, and partly because after a while I didn’t have enough memory in my camera to get a picture of every last thing that was out of stock: I only had 1GB in there.

I’m not really sure what Grape Nuts are made of, but I don’t think there are any particularly rare materials involved. I used to see a bumper sticker all the time, put out by the Mining Industry Council of Missouri, that said ‘If it can’t be grown, it has to be mined’. I have never seen a Grape Nuts bush, so I have to assume that the things are dug out of the ground by giant yellow machines somewhere in Michigan. (Similarly, as I can identify no vegetation or animal obviously associated with Cool Whip or Miracle Whip, I assume that these things are cracked out of some substance that’s pumped out of the ground in the Dakotas: Crude Whip. The Tino Universe is a very orderly, if inaccurate, place.)

My point, anyway, is that there is not and was no shortage of Grape Nuts: Martin’s was just out of them.

Things run out: I understand that. But what’s bizarre is that they were out of Grape Nuts for weeks, during which time — I went back every couple of days before I broke down and went to Food Lion — there were about a dozen boxes of something called ‘Grape Nuts Flakes’ on the shelf next to the bare spot where the Grape Nuts, in happier times, were to be found. (Much of the space formerly taken up by Grape Nuts Flakes has now been taken over by South Beach Diet ‘wheats’.)

Nobody wants Grape Nuts Flakes. I know this intuitively: Grape Nuts and Flakes are polar opposites in the cereal world. If you want flakes, you don’t want Grape Nuts, and if you want Grape Nuts, you don’t want flakes. You want flakes, you buy Corn Flakes; if you’re a Post partisan, you buy Post Toasties (but not at Martin’s, because they don’t sell Post Toasties at all there).

I don’t have to rely entirely on intuition, though: during the entire Grape Nut Drought, not one of those boxes of G.N. Flakes moved.

How can this be? How can a store with a diligent and hard-working manager be sold out of a very basic and popular item for weeks while having twice the shelf space devoted to a similar item that not only doesn’t sell out, but that doesn’t sell at all?

I’ll tell you how: it’s because supermarkets don’t, for the most part, actually function as markets any more. Or, at least, they don’t function as markets in the way you’d expect.

The grocery business is famous for its very low margins. The food that Martins sells me for $100 they probably paid at least $90 for. That 10% margin — and I’m being generous — has to pay for the building, the staff, the electric bill, and the profit. How do they do it? Well, yes, volume is part of it, thanks for asking. But they also effectively increase their margins while at the same time reducing their costs by farming out part of their operations to their vendors, and charging those vendors for the privilege.

Modern supermarkets are therefore less like ordinary shops, where the proprietor chooses a selection of goods, purchases them, and then offers them for sale, than they are like farmer’s markets, where individual vendors lease space from whoever owns the building.

In the cereal aisle, it works this way: assume that Martin’s has 100 linear feet of shelving that they decide to dedicate to breakfast cereals. They hold onto, say, 10% of this for themselves, for their twenty-pound bags of crumbly and slightly off-tasting things with carefully non-infringing names like Froonkenberry, Cheer-Os, and Corm Flakes. They then charge General Mills some amount of money for the right to put their products on 20% of the shelf space, and Post and Kellogg’s some other amounts for 35% each.

Kellogg’s, Post, and General Mills then develop marketing strategies and display guidelines, and send their guys in to stock the shelves with their products. Presumably the cereal people like this because they have more control over how their products are displayed: the Corn Flakes, a relative commodity, are always on the bottom shelf. Grape Nuts (and most of the other cereals for masochists) are on the top. In the middle, you find whatever bad ideas the cereal barons are really pushing at the moment: the children’s-movie-themed cereal of the month; Special K Now With Dried Lingonberries; Cheerios With Hollandaise Sauce; Atkins Brand Bacon Os; etc.

The problem is that this puts even more intermediaries between me and the brave men who toil in the cereal mines. We are supposed to be living in an age of disintermediation, but the way it’s generally being carried out, I don’t think we’re reaping any benefits from it.

In the old days, the grocery store bought its cereal from a grocery wholesaler who specialized in serving certain kinds of stores in a certain area; that wholesaler bought his wares from even larger wholesalers who specialized in certain types of goods. That wholesaler bought from the manufacturers and importers of those goods. By the time anything got to me, it had already been bought and sold four times. This is held to have been inefficient.

Today, when I manage to buy a box of cereal, I’m effectively buying it straight from the manufacturer. The grocery store just maintains a large building for the purpose of keeping all of this stuff dry, and they handle the mechanics of the transaction. In many cases, I’d bet they don’t even pay the manufacturer until they sell something off the shelf.

This is supposed to be more efficient, and it undoubtedly is. But it is more efficient at the cost of the most important function of a market — communication.

In those mythical, halcyon Old Days, when I wanted something that was out of stock, I’d tell the guy who ran the store. If he noticed a number of people complaining about (say) the lack of Grape Nuts, he might just come to the realization that he should order more Grape Nuts. He’d tell his supplier to send five more boxes of Grape Nuts in the next order, and the Grape Nuts problem would be solved.

Today, though, the guy wearing the tie at the grocery store doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with what’s on the shelves. The manufacturers determine what’s in demand by conducting surveys and focus groups, and by noticing what gets sold out before it’s restocked. They then apparently ignore most of this information and instead pack the shelves with whatever horrible fad the marketing department has fantasies of selling this week.

There’s nothing wrong with having vendors stock the shelves: but as the grocers have farmed that part of their business out, they have a responsibility to their customers — and to themselves and their stockholders — to see to it that the vendors are acting in everyone’s best interest, and not just in their own.

A lot of people complain about this. Usually, the complaints take the form of ‘Chain stores/restaurants/services stink’: very rarely, though, do people ask themselves why this should be. After all, a McDonald’s restaurant is a burger place with, ultimately, millions upon millions of dollars of capital behind it. Martin’s is part of an international conglomerate with enough volume to allow them, should they so choose, to have a full-time vice-president, with a staff, to do nothing but oversee their cereal aisles.

So why is it, then, that you almost always get better results from a place with maybe a million dollars in mortgaged-to-the-hilt capital, where the owner has to take time out from fine-tuning his inventory to change the light bulbs and mop the floor?

Because that small outfit not only has an actual channel for communication between customers and decision-makers, but it can make small adjustments to its operations. Large operations, despite their many advantages, seem totally unable to do this — and most of their ‘innovations’ have the effect, intended or not, of making communication and fine-tuning even more difficult. So even those items which are purchased and stocked by Martin’s, rather than by the vendors, don’t reflect the actual local demand: they reflect the opinions of someone making decisions with almost no relevant information.

And so they run out of Grape Nuts, and everything else.

Posted by tino at 17:54 24.05.05
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WOW. I had no idea that was how supermarkets operate. That certain explains a lot! I’d been thinking that these days there should be a computer program that automatically lets you know it’s time to order more Grape Nuts. Technically the vendors should have this, but do they get hourly or daily computer printouts of how their stuff is selling? Maybe that’s the problem.

BTW, I laughed very hard at the “bowl of rocks” being “just what you need” in the morning. I don’t know what it is about Grape Nuts but I really like them sometimes. Then I get tired of having a sore jaw. But when they get too milk-logged, they’re no good.

Also loved “twenty-pound bags of crumbly and slightly off-tasting things with carefully non-infringing names like Froonkenberry, Cheer-Os, and Corm Flakes.”

I eat a lot of cereal.

Also, here in Philadelphia we have a place called Cereality that I really need to go to.

Ok, I’m done digressing now.

OH! Oh my GOSH! You may have just answered the question that’s been making me crazy for months! We are a big fan of the Ka Me brand hoisin sauce. I used to be able to get it all over the place in Philadelphia. Then it began to be edged out by the Asian brand, which we do not like — it has a completely different flavor, which is bad when you are making a dish (a staple of ours) called “Hoisin Chicken”. Just recently, the last bastion of Ka Me brand (Shop Rite) quit carrying it and has switched to Asian as well. Yet the company did not seem to have gone out of business. I guess it’s possible that the Asian vendor is somehow giving the local supermarkets a better deal than Ka Me was.

Fortunately we have a decent supply of Ka Me sauce (I kept buying extra, thinking I was showing the store how popular the stuff is) but I’m gonna have to either order only or hope the big oriental grocery in South Philly or one of the smaller Chinatown stores has it.

Posted by: Evelynne at May 24, 2005 09:02 PM

What’s actually happing here is that the Grape Nuts are getting stolen. Because they are walking out the door some other way, they aren’t getting scanned by the barcode machine, which feeds data to the distributer to tell them to come by and stock the store.

Do they not have “loyalty cards”? That’s probably your problem right there. ;)

Actually, I’m really surprised that the store has a stocking problem, it only seems to happen around here between late Sunday to Tuesday when all the people descend upon the store and buy everything on sale. You can usually get a raincheck if you want to bother.

The only places I’ve ever seen stores with a stock problems were places like Las Vegas, New Mexico, in a classic drug store. They only stocked a few of each item, but they did carry stuff like tooth powder and ichthammol ointment.

Posted by: steel at May 24, 2005 10:14 PM

I frequently have problems with grocery stores being out of things I want to purchase. This did not happen in Chicago, but happens all the time in Washington. Sometimes, they randomly stop carrying an item or a brand that I want, and I have to go elsewhere because, for instance, I don’t want to start buying Marachuan Ramen instead of Top Ramen.

Martins randomly stopped carrying Simply Potatoes. I have no idea why, and the manager wasn’t even sure why or when it had happened. They have some similar products in the produce section, but only similar in that they are cut, ready-to-cook potatoes. They are all the wrong shapes and colors.

Martin’s always used to be out of heavy cream. They are still out of it on Sunday nights, but they aren’t out of it in the middle of the week. I think, however, that the manager probably has some control over dairy products. They are starting to get better at keeping whole milk in quarts on the shelf. For over a year, I had to buy whole milk in quarts at 7-11, for diety’s sake.

I could go on like this, but instead, I’ll comment on Cereality. Who the heck mixes cereal? Do we really need to put Malted Milk Balls on cereal??? I’d settle for them having a huge array of brands and every kind of milk or milk-like product there is. I don’t even want to know what the hell a Slurreality is. It sounds like they are putting cereal in a blender. Say it ain’t so!

Posted by: Nicole at May 25, 2005 03:17 PM

When I was growing up, my mom always told me that cool whip was a petroleum by-product (actually, I think she said it was made from coal-tar and that “coal whip” didn’t go over). I still believe it to be true.

Posted by: Shaye at May 26, 2005 01:40 PM

My problem isn’t so much that grocery stores are out of things but that they suddenly stop stocking one thing, replace it with something else, and the something else is either the generic store brand or just another name brand that we either don’t like or my family won’t eat.

Stopped stocking Jiffy Mix after 11 years I’ve been buying it there and replaced it. My family will not eat the replacement brand.

Constantly replaces tried and true with the newest improved, brand new flavor, trendiest annoying version of things I like. No sooner than I find a new favorite, say apple flavor, they’ve gone on to banana-kiwi. It’s nice to discover new things but not at the expense of old favorites. I shop here VERY little because of this and also because they are the highest priced grocery store in our area.

Stopped stocking VandeKamps’ fish squares. They have the fillets, breaded & grilled, but my kid likes the little squares that fit on the bun nice and neat with the lettuce and tomato. Family won’t eat the breaded fillets because they “don’t fit”.

Biggs also replaced Faygo soda with their own brand Super Chill out of the clear blue. OK, fine if you want to toot your own horn and promote your own brands. But they also switched to little looped up tiny six packs instead of nicely packaged boxed twelve packs which is annoying. It doesn’t cost more but it wreaks havoc w/ my storage space which is limited.

Whenever I leave Biggs, they always ask “Did you find everything, ok? Is there anything we didn’t have?

I have filled out a form every time I go for Zatarain’s Lemon Butter. This may seem like an odd request but they carry other brands of lemon butter AND they carry other Zatarain’s brand products. After two years I still cannot get Zatarain’s Lemon Butter.

I think I’m going to forward this thread to the folks at Biggs. I think three items of annoyance should be enough to garner a tiny bit of attention for any customer.

And since I always try to follow up a complaint with a compliment, their store is always clean, their staff is always nice and I love the way the reorganized the produce. Everything is much easier to find now.

Posted by: Deborah Nesbit at May 28, 2005 05:14 PM

One last bit about Kroger: I hate their “loyalty card” and I really hate them tracking everything I buy and I REALLY hate the fact that they will actually charge you more money for certain items without their ratty little card!

If the soda is .99 then charge me 99. +tax. Don’t charge me $1.20 just because I dont’ have your card! This burns me up in more ways than one and is another reason I refuse to shop there any more than absolutely necessary.

Posted by: Deborah Nesbit at May 28, 2005 05:35 PM

OK, first off, I would so buy Special K with Dried Lingonberries. I would probably buy just about anything with dried lingonberries in it, though. I can’t pass IKEA without thinking, “mmm…lingonberries.”

I took an “Intro to Hospitality” class last term and one of the things we spent a lot of time talking about was the difference between working for small companies and large companies and the difference between working for a franchise and a privately-owned company. Big shock: franchises and large companies make it harder to change the way things are done. They’re less responsive because things have to go through all the proper channels to change. Smaller companies can make spur-of-the-moment changes.

We have three major chain grocery stores near us: Kroger, HEB, and Randalls (owned by Safeway). (I’m conveniently ignoring the Wal-Mart grocery store for obvious reasons.) Tim and I have joked that, since none of the three carries everything we want, we ought to rotate which one we go to — Randalls one week, HEB the next week, Kroger the third week, then a trip downtown to Central Market (it’s Trader Joe’s, only Texas-sized) the fourth week. It’s about the only way we can make sure we have access to all the different varieties of products. I’m tired of walking into a grocery store we don’t normally shop at and discovering that there’s 4 other flavors/varieties of something I like, but my regular store can’t be bothered to carry it. Never mind that all these stores are within three or four miles of each other and on the same street.

Posted by: Sue at May 29, 2005 05:46 PM

I generally pay for my groceries through the auto scanner thingy. Because it lets you key in your phone number on the keypad, (in lieu of scanning a “loyalty card”), I have gotten in the habit of keying in my co-workers home phone numbers. One hundred percent of them so far are total tools.

Posted by: steel at May 30, 2005 03:29 AM

Hi, I came across your website while doing a web search for Martin’s. The title of the article caught my eye. Mainly because it is soooo true! My biggest problem lately is the Propel water in Lemon and Grape I acually feel sometimes like I am stalking Martin’s just to catch this water when it hits the shelves I know the employees are thinking good grief does this girl have a life! I to dread Foodlion and try to avoid it at all cost. Although I have come to notice in the soda department if i go to Martin’s and they have Coke Products on sale that means Pepsi products are on sale at Foodlion. If you take notice its like the take turns never and please correct me if I am wrong will you ever or have I ever seen both have the same kind of soda on sale at the same time. Why I make such a big deal out of this is simply because I am cheap I refuse to pay almost 5 dollars for a 12 pack of Coke when I know its elsewhere for 2.50. Anyways I just wanted to write to agree with you about our Front Royal Martin’s.

Posted by: Samantha at June 17, 2005 03:08 AM