When will grocery store shelves return to normal?

Stores are dealing with both Amazon and shortages. Brian Cooley talks to two grocery industry experts to find out more.

Brian Cooley Editor at Large
Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and The PHM HealthFront™. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
Expertise Automotive technology, smart home, digital health. Credentials
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Brian Cooley
2 min read
Now What grocery store panel
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For the last 70 years, most of us have been able to count on our nearby supermarket having plenty of food, beverages, paper and cleaning supplies. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and grocers faced a sales wave bigger than a holiday season, but without any warning. Add in some supplier shutdowns and a strained shipping network and sometimes it feels like shopping in the former Soviet Union. Now what?

Watch this: Grocery stores have a plan to get back to normal

"Will there be more outages and hoarding in different categories?" asks Michael Browne, executive editor of Supermarket News. "March was all about paper goods and cleaning, then it moved to the food side of things. What's next? Certainly meat has come up," though he doubts that will rise to the level of crisis some fear.

While overall US retail suffered its worst monthly sales drop on record in March 2020, grocery sales went the other direction with a 25% spike, according to the National Retail Federation. Millions of shoppers stocked up at panic levels, while also rueing the shortages they helped create.


Once overflowing with produce, many store shelves lie empty while farmers are forced to plow under some crops. A big part of the problem is matching inventory with demand in a business that largely trades in perishables.

Sarah Tew/CNET

When store shelves started going bare, many shoppers tried online grocery shopping for the first time, only to find "delivery windows are out seven days in some cases," says Doug Baker, VP of Industry Relations for FMI Food Industry Association. "Right now [online orders] are being picked from the same shelves as when you shop. Retailers are testing what's called micro-fulfillment which can be a small 'warehouse' right inside the grocery store" specially designed to fulfill shelf-stable items at the same time that fresh items are being picked in store aisles. Browne says this can reduce pick times dramatically and open up more online fulfillment windows.

Buying groceries online has soared during the pandemic. "25 to 30% of online grocery shoppers last month were first-time online shoppers" with the service they tried, says Browne. "But I don't think there's as much loyalty online as on the store side."


As states relax stay-at-home orders, both Browne and Baker believe the biggest challenge will be establishing in-store safety as well as the perception of it. "Full service cases may become grab-and-go cases. It's very likely we will continue to see the sneeze guards stay up," says Baker.  And touchless checkout may get a big boost from new safety consciousness in stores. "It bodes well for that kind of contactless payment," says Browne. "It's not a flash in the pan and is something we're going to see a lot more of."

Browne and Baker had a lot more to say about the rapid evolution of the grocery experience. Watch the full talk with Brian Cooley to hear all their insights.

Now What is a video interview and panel series with industry leaders, celebrities and influencers covering the major changes and trends impacting business and how consumers connect in the "new normal" 2020 world and beyond. There will always be change in our world, there will always be technology helping us navigate that change, and we'll always discuss surprising twists, turns and potential solutions.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.