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Supermarkets using cardboard cutouts to hide gaps left by supply issues

·3-min read

Supermarkets are using cardboard cutouts of fruit, vegetables and other groceries to fill gaps on shelves because supply problems combined with a shift towards smaller product ranges mean many stores are now too big.

Tesco has begun using pictures of asparagus, carrots, oranges and grapes in its fresh produce aisles, prompting ridicule on social media.

“Mmmm, delicious photos of asparagus,” one commenter wrote on Twitter. Another mocked an oversized picture of the vegetable piled up: “I love that asparagus grows to this size in the UK. It’s our climate, I’m sure.”

Shoppers have spotted fake carrots in Fakenham, cardboard asparagus in London, pictures of oranges and grapes in Milton Keynes, and 2D washing liquid bottles in Cambridge. Sainsbury’s has also used outline drawings of packaging to fill shelves.

The tactic comes as shortages of HGV drivers and pickers and packers on farms and food processing plants lead to low availability of some items in supermarkets. Problems at ports, where handlers are struggling to cope with a surge in deliveries for the festive season, are also leading to shortages.

Bryan Roberts, a retail analyst at Shopfloor Insights, said he had only begun to see the cardboard cutouts of fresh produce in the past year, but said similar tactics had been in place elsewhere in supermarkets for some time. “It has become quite commonplace. It is not only because of shortages, but because a lot of the larger stores are now simply too big.”

Related: ‘It seems impenetrable’: the trials of HGV training

He said the cutouts were one of an array of tactics being used to fill space, including filling meat fridges with bottles of tomato sauce or mayonnaise, spreading packs of beer out across whole aisles, and erecting large posters or other marketing material.

Tesco, which has boasted that its sales have been boosted by its ability to keep shelves stocked, said the fruit and vegetable pictures were not linked to the recent supply chain issues and had been in use for many months.

Traditional supermarkets, which can stock more than 40,000 product lines, have been honing their grocery ranges to improve efficiency so they can cut prices and compete more effectively with discounters such as Aldi and Lidl, which sell fewer than 3,000 different products.

That process has only been accelerated by Brexit and the pandemic which have led to staff shortages and difficulties in shipping goods. Supermarkets and manufacturers have reduced the range of different types of pasta, coffee or teas they sell to make it easier to keep goods flowing.

Some bulky and not very profitable items, such as bottled fizzy drinks and water, have also been pushed down the delivery priority list because of driver shortages, meaning there may be larger gaps on shelves than usual.

Several chains, including Sainsbury’s, Asda and Tesco have also shut food service counters to cut costs, leaving more space to fill.

The rise of online shopping, has meanwhile led to many supermarkets no longer stocking non-food items such as televisions, CDs or kettles which they once did, leaving areas of empty space which many have been unable to fill with alternative products. Some have brought in other services, such as opticians, key cutting or dry cleaners to take up space.

On fresh produce, stores such as Tesco also have targets to reduce food waste, and so are keeping stocks tighter than they might have done in the past.

Cardboard cutouts of expensive items such as detergents, protein powders and spirits such as gin are also sometimes used to prevent shoplifting. Pictures of the items are put on shelves to indicate availability, and shoppers must pick up the actual product at the till.

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