Big Business Games the Supply Chain

This article appears in The American Prospect magazine’s February 2022 special issue, “How We Broke the Supply Chain.” Subscribe here.

Grocery store owner Jimmy Wright spent months stocking up for the holiday season. Since the beginning of the pandemic, he had struggled to maintain inventory at his sprawling store in east Alabama, and as the holidays approached, he anticipated that annual favorites—hams, gingerbread men, pies—would be in short supply. To prepare for the shortages, he began stockpiling products in early November, spending $70,000 on top of the $250,000 he usually devotes to inventory. The investment paid off: Wright’s Market entered the holiday season with goods that were sold out elsewhere, like cream cheese and cranberry sauce.

But this was a bright spot in an otherwise bleak couple of years. Since the pandemic began, manufacturing slowdowns, worker shortages, and volatile demand have dogged the grocery industry, forcing grocers to find new ways to stock their shelves. “We’ve just had to be creative,” Wright said. “When a product was there, we’ve had to try to buy all we could buy.”

Customers still frequent Wright’s Market, which is located five minutes outside of downtown Opelika, a small city of 30,000 that borders Auburn University. But Wright, who has run the market since 1997, said it’s never been so hard to stock up on inventory, and that the process of simply getting supplies overwhelms his employees. “My meat department man will start at about 3:00 every afternoon on the phone, and it takes him until 6:00 each night to call suppliers and see who’s got this, who’s got that,” Wright said. “It takes him about three hours every day, when it used to be maybe 30 minutes before.”

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