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”.