Every so often, you find a food item at the grocery store that gives you those love-at-first-sight butterflies, and you know you’ve got to lock it down.
And then, of course, your store immediately stops carrying it.
This happened to nearly the entire world with Dunkaroos, and it also happened to me when I spotted a dreamy chocolate almond coffee at my local supermarket and committed to making it my go-to brew. We shared several blissful years together until one day, I went to the store to restock and my stomach dropped. The coffee bean dispensers had been scaled down to only eight or so options, and my soulmate in java form was eliminated.
I became a walking post-breakup montage, and rebounded by trying dozens of coffees, hoping to find one that could fill the void.
This existential crisis was followed by several more over the years, as my favorite salad dressing, snack foods and coleslaw also went MIA. My breaking point was when Organic Girl spinach was no longer carried by either of my local supermarkets.
We all have stories like this, of the foods that got away. If we’re lucky, we can find our favorite product in another store or quickly find a close-enough replacement.
But sometimes it’s not that easy. If, like me, you live in a small town with no vehicle, grocery delivery services or affordable public transit, your only option is to accept what’s available at the stores you do have access to, even if you’re not all that jazzed about the selection.
So how, exactly, do stores decide which products they carry? And as a consumer, what can you do to reunite with your favorites again? We asked some experts.
Grocery stores have to make tough business decisions about what to carry.
It’s important to understand why stores carry particular products in the first place. “At the top of that list is to drive—and increase—sales by selling products that not only fit into their overall assortment, but fill customers’ needs,” said Allison Ball, a Bay Area-based food business consultant and former head of grocery at Bi-Rite Market.
If a product’s sales are lagging compared to other brands in the same category, it’s not worth giving that precious shelf space to a slow-moving product.
Say an up-and-coming salty snack producer reaches out to a store to try to get on the shelf, and the buyer is interested in the new product line: “The store would look at the salty snack category as a whole, and most likely, discontinue the slowest-selling item in order to make physical space for the new chip brand,” Ball said. Unfortunately, that means if your favorite tortilla chips aren’t selling very well, they’re going to get cut.
But even if your product is a decent-selling item, it can still get axed if the retailer finds it doesn’t deliver sufficient profit margins. Buyers are incentivized on sales growth, retail margins and promotional dollars received, said Kurt Jetta, founder of retail and consumer analytics firm TABS Analytics in Connecticut.
“If the product’s being knocked off by a private label offering, for example, the retailer may decide to shift sales to the in-store version, which offers higher profit margins,” Jetta added. Or, it’s possible the entire section’s being downsized, so several undeserving products may end up on the chopping block.
“A competitive manufacturer may have also made a deal with the retailer for exclusivity of products within a certain segment or overall category,” Jetta said.
In some cases, there could also be a problem in the supply chain, in which case the product may be discontinued temporarily, but isn’t necessarily gone forever, said Allen Kaplun, co-founder of GreenDropShip.com, a B2B supplier of organic and specialty grocery products. The brand may be unable to source the packaging that’s required, or needs to temporarily close its plant for upgrades. The product is usually reinstated once the brand communicates it finally has it in stock.
There are plenty of other reasons brands might be discontinued from being carried in certain stores — the product is no longer available from the distributor, there’s a big price increase and it no longer makes sense to order the product, the brand itself has out-of-stocks and limited supply—but the bottom line is always this: Which product will bring us higher sales or higher margins, and consequently, more money?
Here’s how you can try to get your favorite foods back.
“The best first step is to find out if the product’s truly been discontinued, if it’s just seasonally unavailable, or if there’s a manufacturer shortage and will be brought back in the future,” says Ball. If it has been discontinued, you’ve got a few options:
Ask the store to bring it back. “Speak with one of the managers to indicate your interest and request that the brand be reinstated,” Kaplun suggested. “They may give the brand another trial and permanently reinstate it if the interest is sustainable.” (Many top tier chains, such as Publix, Walmart and Wegmans, will often bring back the product in particular stores for customers, Jetta said, provided there’s enough of a demand for it to be worth their while.)
Ask to order it by the case. “Stores may special-order cases of the product for you if you can commit to buying it in bulk,” Ball said. “It’s a win/win because they still make the sale and get to keep you as a happy customer.” They may even offer you a discount for buying in bulk.
Find out if it’s available elsewhere. Look on the brand’s website for the closest store that carries the product, Jetta said. If it’s not clear from their site, you can always reach out to their customer service department and find out where else you can buy it.
If the brand is a smaller one, you may even be able to buy from it directly. “This means that more of your money goes directly to the producer, instead of paying the middleman for distribution, storage and stocking,” Ball said.
Buy it online. “Check with your favorite retailer first,” Jetta suggested. “Often, they keep a broader assortment online.” Online grocery is becoming the go-to option for these niche products — you may also be able to find it through independent online merchants that source from other regions, Kaplun said.
Switch to a similar product in the line. Compare labels. Often products have similar or identical formulations; they just speak to a different portion of the brand’s consumer base, Jetta said.
Always keep your eyes peeled. I recently found out that my favorite Tostitos flavor is now being sold under the brand’s Multigrain imprint. The new addition still isn’t available at my local stores, but I found it for sale on Walmart’s website.
Don’t lose hope. After losing my O.G. spinach, one of my stores has brought it back—hopefully, for good. As for my salad dressing, it’s now only being sold to restaurants. I did manage to find a fast food chain that offers packets of it with their salads, so I buy extra packets every time I go there now, while proudly owning how crazy I look stuffing them in my purse.
And if the situation truly is hopeless (like it was with my coffee), there are so many emerging brands coming to market regularly, Kaplun said. Testing out new products is the only way you’re going to find a suitable substitute. It may take a long time (in my case, it took years), but your heart will go on.