If you were lucky enough to buy your groceries at Stew Leonard's in Connecticut last week, you may have noticed an absurdly good deal on, of all things, lobster tails.
"We were able to sell them at $4.99," says Stew Leonard Jr., the grocery chain's CEO. He estimates that the store usually prices them almost twice as high, at about $8.99/each, but last week it was able to sell them for roughly the same price as shoppers paid for a pound of ground beef.
While increased demand and reduced supply have caused egg prices and meat prices to rise during the pandemic, other grocery items have benefited from the opposite dynamic. If you know where to look, you can snag some really good deals.
With restaurants closed or offering limited takeout service in many states, a lot of foods that usually go to the hospitality industry, like heirloom tomatoes and french fries, suddenly find themselves needing buyers.
Farmers across the country have had to dump huge amounts of milk and produce in response, but supermarkets have been able to get hold of some of the excess, especially items that can last a little longer on the shelves. In other cases, wholesale distributors that usually serve restaurants have pivoted to sell to consumers, passing along their bulk pricing deals, and removing restaurant service markups from the equation.
"Retail sales have ballooned for us, mostly from supermarkets and others who couldn't get consistent product from their usual channels," says Benjamin Walker, vice president for sales and marketing at Baldor Specialty Foods, a New York-based distributor that typically focuses on restaurants. "Before this pandemic, retail represented about 12% of our sales. Now it makes up 65% of our current business, with home delivery being roughly 30%."
Distributors like Baldor are able to redirect restaurant supply to retailers like Stew Leonard's.
"We had to buy a trailer load of them," but the store was able to acquire "a pillow pack of five-pound french fries," says Leonard. The pillow packs, which consist of a simple brown bag with no labeling, were produced and packaged for restaurants that aren't operating at anywhere near their usual volume. The store could turn around and sell them to customers at a good price.
"People don't usually buy five pounds of french fries, but with everybody quarantined and kids home from school, they're flying off the shelf," says Leonard.
The same dynamic has allowed Leonard and other retailers, to offer deals on other items that are often considered luxuries, such as lobster tails, which he says often pop up as Mother's Day restaurant specials, and heirloom tomatoes, a fixture of farm-to-table restaurants.
While you might not see $4.99 lobster tails at other stores, overall, prices are significantly down from this time last year. They initially took a hit around March when exports to China were restricted and have since stayed relatively low. At the beginning of May, the wholesale price of Newfoundland lobsters was $6.10/pound, a full dollar less than where it was at the same time last year.
Video by Courtney Stith
While restaurants in New York State have started selling drinks to go and marking down bottled wine, restaurant-specific wholesalers have had to sell much of their stock to retailers. Without the markup, those bottles can sell for much less than usual.
In late April, Wine Business Monthly reported that wines in the $20 to $25 range had been selling particularly well. Nielsen senior vice president for beverage alcohol practices Danny Brager attributed that to increased home consumption of bottles that would normally sell for much higher prices in restaurants.
"We're able to find a lot of even finer wines right now," says Leonard. "We can sell them for sometimes a third of what you'd find them at the restaurants for."
Stew Leonard's has also worked to sell liquor as more people make cocktails at home. In addition to buying excess supply from the restaurant distributors, Leonard has also been in touch with mixologists at major producers like Diageo and Pernod Ricard, who currently are unable to offer their expertise to bars and restaurants. That's enabled him to highlight certain items, including tonic water, which has been selling quickly as people begin to make summer cocktails.
Video by Jason Armesto
In early March, with much of China still under lockdown, exports of many crops to Asia plummeted. What couldn't go overseas became available for Americans to buy instead, often at good prices.
"One-hundred million pounds of almonds destined [for] China created excess supply in the U.S.," explains Baldor's Walker. "Asparagus [prices] dropped early in the spring because Mexico lost its usual Asia markets and exported to the U.S. instead."
Imports from Mexico spiked in mid-March, with 32% more coming into the country from the southern border than at the same time last year. The result: more, and cheaper, asparagus on American supermarket shelves. Asparagus sold for about $2/pound at the start of April — a full dollar less per pound than in February.
Almonds, which were selling for an average of $2.80/pound in January, are now down to $1.85/pound, according to tracking data from Merlo Farming Group, a northern California-based agricultural management firm.
These sales are likely to be temporary, Walker warns. Indeed, prices for many items are already creeping back up. Asparagus is back up slightly to $2.56/pound, according to the USDA's latest report, but that's still over a dollar cheaper than last year's price. Instead of focusing on hunting for specific items that may be affected by pandemic supply chain changes, he suggests taking a strategic approach when you see a good deal.
"Right now, even staple items are subject to the market rules of supply and demand, so those looking to score a relative bargain are going to need to keep a sharp eye on prices," he says. "For some items, costs will fluctuate on almost a daily basis."
So, he says, "when you spot a dip in price, buy in bulk, if you can."
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