Food shortages UK: Why supermarkets hate empty shelves - and the tricks they use to hide them

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Covid-19 and Brexit have exacerbated long-term issues in supermarket supply chains, which has left some gaps on supermarket shelves

While sales have grown, thanks to the numerous lockdowns, supply chains have struggled due to a lack of delivery drivers and shorter-term issues, like panic-buying and the fuel crisis.

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It means their ability to offer the same wide range of products as they did before the pandemic has been compromised, while even keeping stores fully stocked has become a major challenge.

“The UK shopper and consumer could have previously expected just about any product they want to be on the [supermarket] shelf or in the restaurant all the time,” Ian Wright, the boss of food industry trade body Food and Drink Federation, said in September.

"That's over. And I don't think it's coming back."

But given these issues are public knowledge, why have supermarkets been trying to disguise empty shelves? And how do they go about trying to do it?

Here’s what you need to know.

Supermarkets dislike empty shelves because they dent profits and harm retailers’ reputations (image: Shutterstock)Supermarkets dislike empty shelves because they dent profits and harm retailers’ reputations (image: Shutterstock)
Supermarkets dislike empty shelves because they dent profits and harm retailers’ reputations (image: Shutterstock) | Shutterstock

Why supermarkets hate empty shelves

NationalWorld spoke to Lydia Gerratt, a former senior food buyer at a major UK supermarket, to hear why retailers hate having empty shelves.

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Buyers are essentially the nerve centre of all supermarket operations.

Put simply, it’s their job to choose which products make it into stores and in what quantities.

“From a buyer’s perspective, the worst thing possible was to have an empty shelf,” Gerratt says.

“We would look at the shelf as generating profit for the business - no product on the shelf means no sales, and no profit.

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“If we heard from our distribution team that a delivery hadn’t arrived and we were out of stock, we would be straight on the phone to the supplier because without products on the shelf there wouldn’t be any profit.”

Gaps on shelves can dent the profitability of a shop and harm its reputation (image: Getty Images)Gaps on shelves can dent the profitability of a shop and harm its reputation (image: Getty Images)
Gaps on shelves can dent the profitability of a shop and harm its reputation (image: Getty Images) | Getty Images

While profit is a key aspect for any business, reputation is also a major consideration.

And, according to Gerratt, supermarkets are very conscious of how they are seen by shoppers.

“On the selling side, it’s all about the shopping environment - gaps on the shelf give the worst impression to customers,” she says.

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But given their supply chain issues have been headline news, some retail experts think there might be more leeway than usual for retailers at the moment.

Bryan Roberts, analyst at Shopfloor Insights, says that in more usual times, “shoppers might get disenchanted and go elsewhere” if shortages persisted.

However, Roberts tells NationalWorld he believes the public are “aware that it’s not entirely the retailers’ fault”.

Tesco and Sainsbury’s have been ridiculed in recent weeks for putting cardboard cut-outs in the place of real products (image: Shutterstock)Tesco and Sainsbury’s have been ridiculed in recent weeks for putting cardboard cut-outs in the place of real products (image: Shutterstock)
Tesco and Sainsbury’s have been ridiculed in recent weeks for putting cardboard cut-outs in the place of real products (image: Shutterstock) | Shutterstock

What are supermarkets doing to hide gaps?

The extent of the supply chain issues has meant that, try as they might, supermarkets have had to put up with some gaps in stores.

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Things aren’t as bad as they were at the height of panic buying in the first lockdown, when supermarkets looked more like zombie apocalypse film sets than real-life shops.

But they are certainly not where any of the major retailers want them to be, with almost all supermarkets experiencing gaps of one kind or another.

It has led Tesco and Sainbsbury’s to try to cover up shortages in some stores with cardboard cut-outs, moves that have drawn ridicule on social media and demonstrate that supermarkets “must be desperate,” according to Gerratt.

While this method of hiding gaps was perhaps a little clunky, supermarkets have many other tricks up their sleeves, according to Roberts.

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“The compromise tactic is to fill empty bays with booze,” he says.

“But you can only spread product about so thinly.

“Tesco has filled up bays in its chilled section with large cardboard signage to talk about the provenance of their produce.

“It fills up an entire bay without the need to move products around too much, which saves time for store operatives.”

Roberts points to similar tactics in Asda and Sainsbury’s, the latter of which has put up “information panels on why things like cereal are good for you”.

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Asda has gone a little more high-tech than cardboard signage, with the supermarket installing digital screens in some of its aisles.

But while these measures undoubtedly fill shelf space, Roberts doubts whether they bring any extra sales “because most shoppers are on auto-pilot when shopping” and therefore, aren’t as susceptible to marketing.

Another method seen in some bigger stores is to give floorspace over to other businesses.

For example, sports retailer Decathlon has space within Tesco and Asda stores, while sushi chain Yo! has food kiosks in more than 300 Sainsbury’s shops across the country.

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But ultimately, what all of these tactics show is that “stores are too big,” Roberts says.

So maybe we can expect the places we shop in to become a little smaller in the future.

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