Don't judge a supermarket for empty shelves, it might be fighting food waste

Whole foods
© Melissa Breyer, Whole Foods in Brooklyn, NY

Sorry, shoppers, but empty supermarket shelves could be a good thing.

So here's something funny. People loved to complain about Whole Foods, otherwise known as Whole Paycheck, because it had a reputation for being upscale and expensive. And then Amazon bought the company, and now many of the prices have dropped and some of the glossy elitist shine has been softened ... and now people love to complain about Whole Foods for not being fancy enough. The healthy food shopper has entered the Goldilocks zone.

Hayley Peterson at Business Insider did a pretty good job of cataloging said complaints in a recent article titled, "'Entire aisles are empty': Whole Foods employees reveal why stores are facing a crisis of food shortages." In the 1800-word story, both employees and shoppers from coast to coast bemoan the horrors of not having shelves fully stocked. To be fair, this does place a burden on employees who have to suffer the brunt of customer complaints, and who likely feel that they can't do their jobs well if they're not being supported with the basics of the business: Things to sell.

But are we being too quick to judge? Everyone seems to think it's a matter of sloppy, uncaring management. But the reason behind Whole Foods emptiness epidemic is an inventory system implemented in stores in early 2017 – before Amazon came on board. Known as order-to-shelf (OTS), Peterson describes it as "a tightly controlled system" in which "employees largely bypass stock rooms and carry products directly from delivery trucks to store shelves. It is meant to help Whole Foods cut costs, better manage inventory, reduce waste, and clear out storage."

Peterson writes:

Every employee who spoke to Business Insider agreed that the system had been effective in reducing extra inventory. Stores' back rooms and freezers that were once cluttered with unsold items – which could spoil before they were sold – are now nearly empty.

"We had an outside company grade us on our inventory and our back stock" shortly before OTS's implementation, one assistant department manager recalled. "We failed. We had millions of dollars in inventory just sitting around..."

Now, say employees, spoilage is in check. And given that food waste is such an enormous problem, empty shelves seem like a small price to pay. According to the USDA, U.S. food waste is estimated to be between 30 to 40 percent of the food supply. That a chain of nearly 500 large supermarkets is doing something to tackle the problem? That should be supported.

While I know that it's frustrating to come across an empty bin that usually holds the produce that you were dreaming of for dinner; and while I know it's frustrating for employees to have to deal with empty shelves, I think we need to reframe this problem. Rather than seeing it as a lack of good management, why not think of it as growing pains during an attempt to do something important? When dealing with the massive amount of food that a supermarket juggles, the line between "enough" and "too much" is a very fine one. In the face of such prodigious food waste, I say the consumers need to step up and tone down their expectations that every item be abundantly stocked.

Aside from helping the planet by tackling the food waste problem, being sold out of an item can lead to learning some valuable flexibility skills: No cabbage, can I use Brussels sprouts? No rice, let's try barley! Also we can take solace in knowing that things will be fresher when they haven't been sitting in a storage room inching closer to the end of their lives as they wait for their turn to go on the shelf. Take joy in the empty fridge where the 365 nonfat yogurt usually lives! And if you see a manager sheepishly looking at the vacant potato bin, tell them you know that an empty shelf is better than food waste. We can have our cake and eat it too, as long as we are willing to see a perceived problem as a solution ... and as long as we don't mind a cookie if the cake shelf is empty.

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