Shelf Life

The rural neighborhood I live in hosts a Nextdoor electronic newsletter, allowing residents to post online for all sorts of reasons. (Loose animals are a frequent topic.) Today, however, one thoughtful neighbor said to look beyond first responders and hospital staff for a moment and acknowledge other workers deserving of the spotlight: grocery store employees. Talk about people we take for granted. After all, they’re keeping an eye on 20,000 different products on the shelves of the average U.S. supermarket.

I had to double-check that number to believe what I was reading.  Nielsen, the research and ratings firm not only confirmed the number but said U.S. grocery stores experienced a 4.5% decline in 2020 (so more like 18,000 products).  Shouldn’t surprise us, especially with global supply chain interruptions.  And it’s easy to remember the most popular products missing in action.  Bath tissue, cleaning wipes, and canned soup, for example.  Others however, you probably didn’t notice.  Bumble Bee, the tuna maker, reduced its product count from 300 to 225.  Progresso Soup (a personal favorite), dropped its canned choices from 90 to 50.

Now, guess what?  Bumble Bee is not only back to its 300 products but adding new ones regularly.  Progresso is back to its ninety soups and doing the same thing.  So much for the “death of variety”, huh?  And speaking of variety, did I say ninety soups from a single manufacturer?  I’d be lucky if I could name twenty-five (“tomato”, “chicken noodle”, “clam chowder”, uh, uh…)  No wonder soup gets so much real estate on supermarket shelves.

J.M. Smucker is taking a similar tack.  They make a dozen varieties of peanut butter and two dozen more of jelly but last year you had to go without “Simply Jif”, “Reduced Fat”, and “Omega 3” versions of both.  Today, not only are their PB&J’s back but Smucker has introduced “Jif Natural Squeeze” and a smaller snack version of their popular “Uncrustables” frozen sandwiches.  It’s as if the pandemic was a small speed bump en route to ever-increasing variety.

Post Grape-Nuts cereal (which earned solo attention from me in “Ever Eat a Pine Tree?“) disappeared entirely in 2020.  For a while there you couldn’t find any version of the tooth-shattering cereal on the shelves.  But now the gravel is back, and Post is making a bold move to “apologize” for last year’s inconvenience.  If you paid $10 or more for a box of Grape-Nuts from November 2020 to March 2021, Post will issue a partial refund for the “unreasonable” portion of the cost.  You need your receipt, of course.  Clever marketing there.  How many people keep their grocery store receipts from six months ago?

Speaking of bold moves, here’s one I think we should sustain; a sort of pandemic silver lining.  At many hotels “housekeeping” has been reduced to the time between stays instead of every day.  My wife and I recently spent four nights in a Marriott hotel and at no time did housekeeping enter our room.  Instead, we gathered up dirty towels and exchanged for new ones at the front desk.  We emptied our own trash.  We made the mini soap/shampoo/conditioner bottles last.  It was hardly an inconvenience.  It was also nice to know our room was undisturbed the entire time.

Similarly, dropping grocery store product totals from 20,000 to 18,000 was subtly a good thing.  We were forced to simplify our pantries and go more back-to-basics.  We cooked more.  We ate more whole foods (instead of fast foods).  Let’s hope those habits remain, even while consumer goods manufacturers crank out ever-more variety.

There’s a newish bad habit driving grocery store shelf life however; one bound to stay a while.  The percentage of snack/junk foods you’ll find is higher than pre-pandemic days.  Why?  Because working from home drives the demand.  Accordingly, you’ll find 10.9% more salty snacks on the shelves, 11.5% more energy drinks (including PepsiCo’s caffeine-laden Mountain Dew Rise), and 14.8% more pastry items.  And (most disturbingly), you’ll find 79.2% more pre-mixed cocktails.  Whoa now.  Somebody might want to post on Nextdoor for the invention of a web-based sobriety test.  They’ll make a fortune.

Some content sourced from the CNN Business article, “These foods disappeared from grocery stores last year…”, the CNN Business article, “The Grape-Nuts shortage is over…”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

13 thoughts on “Shelf Life

  1. Grape Nuts are addicting if you haven’t tried them before, Lyssy. I can’t imagine how many servings I’ve had over my lifetime, but it’s a big number. They’re rough on the jaw though 🙂

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  2. At our house we switched from Grape Nuts to Grape Nuts Flakes. Much easier on the teeth and jaw, and I like the taste a bit better. Fortunately we buy two boxes at a time, and a friend found another for us during the outage, so we survived…

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  3. Very interesting… I knew that things were changing at the Grocery store, had no idea Grape Nuts were not on the shelf last year. Progresso with 90 soups, what can they be?They certainly are not all in one grocery store, must be catering to different parts of the country. I went through phases of liking them. I like raisin bran, cheerios, Great Grains and Kashi Go Original a lot.

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  4. pre-mixed cocktails are just wrong. Think of all the bartenders losing their jobs. And more importantly, my best excuse for not making cocktails at home, “Sorry we’re out of tonic.” It’s just wrong at so many levels.

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  5. Like my squirrel friends who hide nuts for the Winter, I similarly go to the grocery store and stock up on pantry items to do me from October through the end of April. I’ve done four of my five annual shopping excursions and I take a perpetual list with me, but came home each time with the need to start a new list as so many items were just wiped clean from the shelves and there was nothing to substitute either. Did people buy them up? They were not anti-bacterial in nature – there was powdered flavored creamer and my favorite instant coffee brands (I have two types and use instant coffee as it’s just me drinking it).

    Who knew Grape Nuts was off the shelf? Before I began my allergy shot regimen in 1975, I had hayfever and in those sneezy/wheezy months, there was nothing more soothing going down a throat that felt itchy from allergens, than a couple of spoonfuls of good ol’ Grape Nuts – straight, no milk on them. I love peanut butter, but not so much since I’ve switched from Jif Crunchy (yum) to Jif Natural Creamy, which I eat because it’s healthier, but you won’t see me dipping my spoon in there for a quick bite either like I did with Jif Crunchy. I don’t care for the texture nor the pools of grease embedded in the jar – ugh.

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    1. I didn’t realize Grape Nuts were off the shelf either but maybe it’s because I bought their largest box before the pandemic and they STILL haven’t hit their expiration date. Tough little nuggets 🙂

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  6. I lived abroad for quite a few years, and when I would come back to visit, I was dazzled by the ridiculous amount of choices in grocery stores. A bit much, don’t you think? I like your description of the hotel stay. That makes sense to me.

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  7. “Ridiculous amount of choices…” – I agree, Ruth. You could reduce the brand count of all products by 90% in the supermarket and I’d still complete my shopping list in a single visit. I’m just not that particular (except when it comes to Grape Nuts!)

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