From frozen pizzas to toilet paper, Alaska stores deal with erratic shortages

Grocery store shelves with numerous spices missing and no salt at all
The spice aisle at a Kenai grocery store, where salt — meant to line the bottom shelf — is fully out of stock. (Photo by Riley Board/KDLL)

It’s hard to walk into a grocery store these days without thinking about the buzz-phrase “supply-chain problems.” The common sight of scattered empty shelves is the product of global supply systems that were shattered by the pandemic, and even more recently by the war in Ukraine.

Reported national shortages include meat, canned goodscoffee and wine. On the Kenai Peninsula, many grocers agree that it’s hard to predict which items will be unavailable during any given week.

“One week it’s like Jimmy Dean sausage, the next week it’s paper products. It’s just been so random lately,” said Jim Kolb, the marketing director at Alaska-based chain Three Bears.

He said the shortages come in strange waves — one week it will be tampons and pads, and the next, frozen pizzas.

“Honestly, that’s what it’s like. We don’t know. Ammo used to be a big problem, it’s not anymore,” he said.

Lately, it hasn’t been too bad. The only products Kolb said he’s missing at the moment are frozen items.

The erratic shortages hit small grocery stores even harder. At Cooper Landing Grocery and Hardware, owner Wayne Mitchell said 25% of everything he orders just never shows up.

That’s particularly true for items that come from overseas, like souvenirs.

“It runs the whole gamut, from cigarettes to candy to souvenirs to anything. Almost anything. I’m taking a chance on what I order,” Mitchell said.

Souvenirs are especially important at the Cooper Landing store, which serves a lot of tourists in the summer.

Mitchell said the store has basic items available most of the time, but placing orders has become difficult and inconsistent.

Last year, he said, he only had to go through one vendor to get items. But with a lack of supplies, he’s had to diversify. Now, he has to go through three or four different vendors to get what he needs. That’s made purchasing for the store a major time commitment.

“I’m working on orders almost constantly trying to get stuff in here. So it’s been a challenge,” he said.

Those challenges resonate with Jenny Bushnell, the Kenai manager of the small chain Save U More. She said the seasoning liquid smoke and toilet paper are recent culprits.

She also said product shortages are accompanied by sky-high shipping rates.

“Say a pallet costs me a thousand dollars. To get it up here I would pay 20% of that, so it would cost me $1,200 to get that stuff up here. Now if the palette costs $1,000 it’s 40% added on so it’s $1,400 to get the pallet here,” Bushnell said.

She said that doesn’t even account for the cost of putting the product on a barge — which has to first make its way to Anchorage, then down to the store on Kalifornsky Beach Road.

For Bushnell, that means she’s paying higher costs for those products and changing up Save U More’s traditional offerings.

Save U More, like the store in Cooper Landing, is serving a primarily tourist customer base this summer. Bushnell said she struggles to meet the needs of customers who are only in town for a short while. By the time she’s able to bring in the missing products tourists are asking for, they’ve already gone back home.

But shortages aren’t hitting every grocery store the same way.

Jim Kolb of Three Bears said that besides a week without frozen items here or paper products there, Three Bears has, in general, been able to keep its nine Alaska stores well supplied. He attributes this to a strong buying staff and a willingness to seek out a variety of alternative vendors, something that larger chains might be likely to do.

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