Supermarkets Alter Layouts, Use Decoys to Fill Gaps Left by Shortages

Product shortfalls caused by supply-chain bottlenecks are pushing grocers to get creative so consumers aren’t facing empty shelves

While chaos reigns in supply chains, grocery stores are trying to present an appealing and seemingly organized front for customers. To do so, some are turning to age-old tricks of the trade, and developing new ones, to cover up gaps on the shelves.

That includes moving products to unlikely places in stores.

Shoppers in the U.K. said they have spotted bulky crates of beer piled into aisles reserved for prepackaged meals and boxes of chocolate filling crates usually stocked with fresh vegetables. One branch of Co-operative Group Ltd., which operates stores under Co-op, stocked refrigerated displays with shelf-stable HP Sauce and Heinz Salad Cream condiments so that shoppers wouldn’t see empty racks.

“We’ve been impacted by some patchy disruption to our deliveries,” a spokesperson for Co-op said. “Our teams are always trying to make sure our stores look as attractive as possible and sometimes managers come up with creative ways of making sure shelves are full.”

Businesses the world over are experiencing product shortages as demand for goods has rebounded faster than supply following the worst of the pandemic, which also disrupted labor availability at food suppliers. In the U.K., 17% of consumers said they couldn’t buy essential food items because they were unavailable between Sept. 22 and Oct. 3, according to figures from the Office of National Statistics.

Retailers say they need to maintain their customer experience as best they can to remain competitive.

Some 58% of consumers said supply-chain disruptions, product shortages and shipping delays have made shopping more stressful, and 41% said product shortages and significant shipping and delivery delays would cause them to abandon a brand, according to results from an October survey by New York-based trade association ICSC, which represents retail businesses.

For grocers, that means managing stores to at least look well-stocked, ordered and tidy.

Some have stacked whole aisles with items that ordinarily have a small space on one shelf. Others have filled gaps with cardboard “dummies,” including empty prepackaged sandwich boxes—a tactic that isn’t new, but one that shoppers are likely noticing is being employed more frequently, said Catherine Shuttleworth, founder and chief executive of retail consulting firm Get Savvy Marketing Ltd.

A spokesperson for British grocer Tesco PLC, which was spotted displaying cardboard photos of items in the place of merchandise in some stores, said the use of cutouts wasn’t connected to recent supply-chain challenges, and that the pictures are used by larger stores for various reasons, such as a layout reconfiguration. Meanwhile, supermarkets including Sainsbury’s PLC and the John Lewis Partnership PLC’s Waitrose & Partners, have been using signs to fill empty shelves. A spokesperson from Sainsbury’s said it had used signs to fill empty shelves in some stores before supply-chain issues began.

The use of cardboard placeholders makes operations easier for supermarkets, many of which are struggling to hire and retain staff, Ms. Shuttleworth said.

“It’s probably quicker and definitely cheaper to put bits of cardboard in than it is to do anything else,” such as reorganizing a store’s aisles or moving stock to fill the empty space, she said.

Placeholders also can shield staff from shopper inquiries into the whereabouts of items, Ms. Shuttleworth said.Grocery stores in the U.S. haven’t escaped product shortages, although larger companies with access to a wide network of suppliers, capital and space have had more success working around supply-chain issues without disrupting the shopper experience.

Kroger Co., the largest grocery chain in the U.S., said it increased its safety stock of items in more than 70 categories, sourced additional warehouse space to house the extra products and spread out the ports it uses for imports. Walmart Inc. also said it has diverted ships to less congested ports, while hiring 20,000 supply chain workers and further automating some warehouse operations.

But smaller grocery retailers with less flexibility have struggled to keep shelves full and to plan for what items may show up on any given day.

“I’ve had over a decade of retail experience and this is like nothing I’ve experienced or seen before,” said I’Talia McCarthy, general manager of the Dill Pickle Food Co-op in Chicago., which she said is dealing daily with deliveries arriving incomplete or not at all. “We have made a huge effort in making sure we’re not having these huge gaps.”

Dill Pickle has been filling fridges with surprising products in its cool section. That includes tofu, usually housed on shelves in the store’s Asian section, and shelf-stable products such as oat and soy milk.

“But there’s definitely a risk you take. Like, am I going to have to convince someone that they have to keep this refrigerated now?” Ms. McCarthy said.

Grocery store managers said they are deploying one of the oldest techniques usually used by stores running low on produce to other sections of the store: “Facing up,” or bringing the few items on a shelf to the front so customers can’t see the empty space behind. They are also increasing the number of “facings,” or rows, a certain item is given on a shelf to cover gaps.

Matt Santarpio, the owner of the Walnut Food Market in Newton, Mass., said some items that he previously gave one shelf spot to now are spread across two or three to cover up gaps left by sold-out or unobtainable goods. The Dill Pickle has also altered shelving layouts to avoid empty space, Ms. McCarthy said.

“If we see holes, we’ll all of a sudden make our bestsellers have three or four slots rather than just one or two,” she said.

But facing up doesn’t solve all problems, said Jon Roesser, the general manager of Weavers Way Cooperative Association in Philadelphia. “It gets to the point where it looks silly, say if you’re walking down the aisle and you see seven or eight facings of the same product,” he said.

Weavers Way isn’t troubled about leaving gaps, Mr. Roesser said.The store uses signs to indicate a product is out of stock and directs customers to ask staff about substitutes. The store also briefs staff on which items may be in or out at the start of each shift, Mr. Roesser said.

And for Mr. Santarpio, the owner of Walnut Food Market, leaving some shelves empty is a tactic designed to keep customers coming back.He took over the business in January 2020, right before coronavirus measures closed down nearby offices, so many shoppers are visiting the store for the first time since it was remodeled.

Imports such as Smarties candy and Cadbury chocolate have been the hardest to come by, and the display boxes have been empty for months. But still, Mr. Santarpio keeps them on display.

“For certain things, I’m afraid people will come in, see it’s not here and wind up not coming back for it,” he said. “Keeping the box out shows I’m making an effort to get them in, and not giving up on them.”