Freeway, mountain pass closures hit Puget Sound region grocery stores with shortages

Jan 11, 2022, 3:09 PM | Updated: 10:30 pm

Grocery stores...

Leschi Market co-owner Paul Wilcox pointing out product shortages on the shelves. (Nicole Jennings, KIRO Newsradio)

(Nicole Jennings, KIRO Newsradio)

Walking around grocery stores like Seattle’s Leschi Market on Monday, evidence of the mountain pass and freeway closures could be seen in the gaps among milk, juice, and cereal on the shelves.

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The past weekend saw Western Washington turned into an island, as Snoqualmie, Stevens, White, and Blewett Passes closed due to avalanche danger and high snowfall (with the North Cascades Highway already closed for the season). Twenty miles of I-5 in Lewis County closed on Friday as well due to flooding.

“As an independent retailer, a lot of our main wholesalers are located in the greater Portland/greater Vancouver area, and even some things coming out of California, so that can create a real stalemate to get product here,” said Paul Wilcox, co-owner and manager of Leschi Market.

Three shipments were late this past week because of weather and closures. That left Leschi Market with about 90% of their usual stock to start the week. Wilcox would like to normally be at 100%, but he still feels lucky compared to what has happened to some of the larger grocery stores; because Leschi buys from many small, local, mom-and-pop suppliers, those wholesalers were able to come make deliveries in their cars, with no need for a semi truck to cross a mountain pass.

Still, Wilcox said, a delivery that is late by even a day can have repercussions.

“Delivery times are dramatically impacted with adverse weather,” Wilcox said. “If we’re expecting a delivery on Saturday and it doesn’t arrive until Tuesday, which just recently happened, obviously that’s lost sales, that’s product not on the shelf.”

Often, Wilcox has to write orders for new stock before the first batch has even arrived — what is known to grocery stores as “ordering blind.” It can be hard to guess what will need to be replenished in the next shipments when the products are not even on the shelf yet.

Then there is the problem of pull dates. A shipment that is three days late can significantly eat into the shelf life of a carton of milk.

“The most important one is perishable dairy items,” Wilcox explained. “Not only (are you) out of product, but you’re fighting the expiration date process of it too — meaning that we’re going to receive that product, even though we’re going to receive it four days late. You’ve lost an additional four days of sales against that date.”

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At the same time, the market still owes that money to their wholesalers, even if some of the products have to be tossed out due to impending expiration before they are sold.

“The bill still comes in, we still have to pay for it,” Wilcox said.

He is hopeful that with more typical weather on the way, there may not be any more major thoroughfare closures, but other issues are still at play. Wilcox said that pandemic staffing shortages have impacted the warehouses that their products come from, which also can lead to late deliveries.

“You’ve got four people trying to do the work of 10 — trying to build a pallet, get it on a truck, and also have the truck get here on time,” Wilcox said. “So that factors into it as well. And they’re also waiting on the manufacturer to deliver the product to the warehouse. It’s one big puzzle and we’re all connected.”

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Freeway, mountain pass closures hit Puget Sound region grocery stores with shortages