What’s behind shortages, how long will they last? Local stores and experts weigh-in

PITTSBURGH — It’s three words you likely have heard a lot about for the past 20 months: supply chain shortage.

All these months later, our everyday lives feel the effect of the disruptions, from items not available to purchase limits on certain products and to the rising prices of what seems like everything.

Many people think it’s just one issue like a port backlog or labor shortage causing the chaos but 11Investigates found out that’s not the case. The team from11 Investigates asked the question many people are asking us: how long we should expect to see the supply chain shaken up?

New mother Autumn Ringel of Plum said she’s noticed her normal trip to the grocery store changed, “definitely higher prices and the shelves are definitely stocked less.”

From national chains like Wal-Mart to Target to our local hometown grocery stores, all are feeling the strain the coronavirus pandemic put on our global supply chain.

Giant Eagle Spokesperson Jannah Jablonowski spoke with Channel 11 about the impact: “Every category of our store has been impacted by some sort of supply chain challenge over the past 18 months. It’s really a matter of what the problem is and how we can solve ... it.”

There are many factors involved in getting items like toilet paper and cream cheese to the shelf for you to pick up. From assembly, shipping, and stocking, it’s something many of us never really thought about before. The global supply chain is complex and made up of many different links. If one link fails, it creates a ripple effect across the entire chain which can take weeks, months, and even years to catch up.

Jablonowski says grocery chains like Giant Eagle are working with more vendors than ever before and if you come across an empty shelf, don’t panic since it will vary from store to store.

“You might find shelves like this, and that can be for a lot of different reasons said Jablonowski while pointing to a partially empty bread shelf as the fresh bread order didn’t arrive yet that day.

While the pandemic is largely the cause of many of the supply chain issues, there have been other things this last year, like natural disasters, ranging from the deep freeze in Texas to hurricanes.

Backlogs at the ports and shipping delays are just one factor of a kink in the chain, according to a supply chain expert at the University of Pittsburgh.

“The shipping time has gone up because some countries require the container, or the ship to be in quarantine for a week or two weeks before it can be unloaded,” said Prakash Mirchandani, Director of the Center for Supply Chain Management at Pitt.

Mirchandani explained that some aspects of the supply chain were issues around before the pandemic but not really talked about, “if you think about truck driver shortage that existed even before COVID-19 And what COVID did was it exacerbated those problems.”

Another thing which many of us don’t know is the pandemic highlighted another issue many manufacturing industries implemented in the last two decades: “lean production.” This cost efficiency move creates more havoc according to Mirchandani.

“They were holding very little amounts of inventory. There’s very little buffer. If something happens to the supplier for that particular component that is needed, then the assembly line comes to a standstill.”

Mirchandani said the computer chip shortage is a great example as it created problems for numerous manufactures that use them from car production and smartphones.

That standstill also ripples down to us, creating challenges for grocery stores in how much product they can order and causing prices to rise.

Jablonowski says “price increases are unfortunately par for the course when you get into supply chain challenges. A lot of national brand vendors are also doing limited production, meaning that they’re producing their highest, highest selling, highest moving varieties.”

But even just paying a few cents more can impact many of us on fixed incomes.

Consumer advocate Mary Bach says people should comparison shop, “So eat the bargains. Play the shopping game, so that you come out ahead.”

She adds planning ahead for the holiday and being flexible in what brands are available is key, “do not wait until the last minute. This is one opportunity or one period of time when the early bird really does get the worm.”

Shopping for many of us will be forever changed, grabbing an extra can or box will likely become a habit for many of us. Giant Eagle say they will continue to stock the shelves every day and what you see on the shelf is what they have in stock.

Jablonowski said the days of having extra items in the back as they did decades ago are long gone. “From a supply chain standpoint, it’s so difficult to predict what tomorrow will bring ... in the next month or a year. Flexibility as an essential element in your grocery shopping experience is here to stay.”

While we don’t have a crystal ball to predict if things will get better or worse, supply chain experts like Mirchandani think things will likely get better next year.

“Depends on the product,” said Mirchandani. “For some products, it’s going to be just a few, couple of months or so. Other products are going to be longer, but I think we will survive, we’ll come out ahead.”

As for everyday shoppers like Rich King of Monroeville, he still finds himself running from store to store, “You just got to keep trying different places and you know, remember that hopefully, this is all temporary.”