How Your Groceries Get to the Store: The Logistics of Supermarkets

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Lisa Freedman)

How do your groceries get to the grocery store? Have you ever wondered?

They come by semi, by box truck, in pink-and-white fully-wrapped PT Cruisers touting local cupcake businesses. And sometimes, grocery suppliers come in by foot, with plastic totes of freshly foraged mushrooms, hand-picked squash and still-warm-from-the-oven baguettes. Mornings are the busiest. Trucks pull up to the back (if in the suburbs) or to the front door (if in the city) with boxes of bananas and styrofoam coolers of salmon.

Diesel engines run while perishables are wheeled to their rightful storage areas. Packing slips are signed, and shortly after, another truck pulls up in the queue.

A desire to provide fresh and local combined with a need to have consistent offerings and a wide selection makes for a delicate dichotomy in grocery logistics. Grab your box cutter and let’s break into what happens behind the scenes.

How Grocery Items Get to the Shelves (and the Freezer)

First of all, what does “grocery” mean? In the industry, “grocery” contains these categories:

  • Shelf Stable, Dairy, Frozen, Health & Beauty Aids, Bulk

Supermarkets rely on several distributors to fill grocery shelves. These semi trucks are filled with shrink-wrapped pallets of Heinz Ketchup, Amy’s Black Bean Soup and cases of Kitchen Basics Chicken Stock all pieced together in a five foot tall cardboard Rubik’s Cube.

Some distributors specialize in conventional grocery items, while others, like UNFI, handle natural and specialty foods.

Larger chains dictate which products are stored at these distributor warehouses, and often get across-the-board price cuts on items. (Some, like Kroger, own their own distribution network.)

For the grocery-curious, a code name for the distributor is on the price tag, alongside a barcode for ease in reordering. UNFI (Whole Foods’ main squeeze, distributor-wise), will often show up as “United Naturals.”

Why Grocery Stores Use Distributors

Why the middle man? Consistency and ease. If someone buys all the Black Cherry Almond Clif bars from your favorite Gelsons, a quick scan will ensure that they’re refilled on the next shipment, and that the store doesn’t need to bring in fifteen cases of that SKU (stock keeping unit) to make it happen. The distributor is essentially your grocer’s codependent yet reliable back room.

Dairy items, cheese and booze will come from smaller, specialty or regional distributors that focus on minimal categories. For high maintenance items (think: ice cream) it’s not uncommon for a producer to become a delivery option for other products in that category.

Which Products Skip the Distributors?

A minority of products come to stores directly, either via shipping or DSD (Direct Store Delivery). This happens most often with artisanal items, baked goods, and locally made products, as well as groceries that make sense for select locations of a chain. (Some stores are “Coke stores,” while others have an affinity for Pepsi.)

Direct deliveries require attention from the grocery staff, and may not always be consistently in stock at your grocer, due to minimum orders requested by the food producers to justify delivery costs. Notice that a certain SKU from a line your grocer carries is rarely in stock, but the others are? They may be waiting until more products in that line sell to place an order.

How Produce Gets to Your Grocery Store

No matter how green your grocer is, chances are they rely on a variety of produce distributors to fill the bins. (Blame the almighty banana.) The regional distributor brings stability and consistency (ensuring you’ll always have a cucumber when you need one) while supplementing with smaller distributors and farm-delivered produce. Ideally, when produce is in season, your grocer relies more on what’s available locally, and less on its main distributor.

Master mathematicians, distributors have warehouses full of inventory being held at specific temperatures, ready to be sent out to retailers with a day’s notice at the exact level of ripeness desired by you, the customer.

Produce changes seasonally, but traditionally, Mexico, California and Florida provide the majority of native-to-the-Americas fruits and vegetables. Many distributors will attend regional produce auctions to purchase en masse. Relationships are traditionally forged with local farmers prior to the growing season for specialty crops. (Think: peaches, berries, sweet corn and tomatoes.)

To truly know the origin of your produce, take a look at the labels and ask questions. Keep in mind that organic and local produce may not be as beautiful as conventional, but nothing beats a vine ripened down-the-road August tomato.

How Meat & Seafood Reach Your Meat Counter

Butcher shops and seafood departments supply lines aren’t dissimilar to other areas of the grocery store. Regional distributors provide frequent deliveries of commodity meats (with branded lines that typically lead back to big companies Tyson and Cargill), while local farmers and ranchers offer branded lines with more traceability and transparency.

Specialty and independent grocers often choose brands that provide more detail about how a product is raised. Some of these brands (such as Niman Ranch) are available through traditional distributors, while others are direct, and come with challenges. (One natural beef supplier in Ohio requires that meat departments purchase by the steer, and not by the cut, forcing retailers to find revenue streams for not-as-popular pieces and cuts.) For Thanksgiving, relationships between the butcher shop and farmers are established in advance for fresh turkeys.

In this column, Jill Moorhead is sharing the knowledge she’s accrued in her years of working in grocery stores on both the marketing and wholesale sides. It’s our hope that this industry insight will make your weekly shopping a pleasure. We’re changing the way we shop, and grocery stores are paying attention.