SOUTHERN INDIANA — Hoosiers have had to adjust to a litany of sudden lifestyle changes brought on by the coronavirus pandemic over the past several weeks.
Those adjustments have spilled over into how people shop. Empty shelves became the new normal immediately, as a wave of panic shopping swept through the area.
Now, higher prices are emerging as another concerning reality. This week, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that grocery prices shot up 2.6% in April, the highest one-month spike seen in nearly 50 years.
Mike Clements has been store manager at Cash Saver, also known as Olde Towne Grocery to Jeffersonville locals, for roughly six years. In the weeks since pandemic-related shutdowns started in March, business has been booming at the store.
With nowhere to go out to eat and stay-at-home orders keeping people indoors, more at-home cooking and stockpiling commenced.
“Whenever the shutdown first started, the traffic was almost more than we could handle," Clements said. "That’s been great for our business, and we’re still seeing results. The store’s been above record sales for three straight weeks, which I’m doubtful we’ll ever get that again."
But with that boom in business came a blow to product availability. Things like paper products, noodles and canned foods became scarce, with Clements noting that the store is still having issues keeping them on the shelves.
Most regular grocery items have held steady or seen marginal price increases. Milk is a bit higher than Clements would like, with prices going up 1.5% nationally.
But the biggest problem areas have been meats, poultry, fish and eggs. Egg prices accounted for the biggest national spike for any item in April at 16.1%, though Clements said that has since fallen.
"Eggs have gone up, but they’ve gone back down," he said. "With the Easter demand, eggs skyrocket. But they’re back down now."
What hasn't gotten any better is the price of meat. The Labor Statistics numbers showed uncooked ground beef going up 4.8%, while some pork products reached a 10.1% hike.
Ground beef typically hovers around $4 per pound. Clements recalled the highest price he had previously seen at Cash Saver as $4.99.
Local butchers are now reporting a much higher percentage increase than what was shown in the national statistics. At Cash Saver, ground beef prices are now approaching $7 a pound.
“Prices are up 35% to 40%," Cash Saver butcher Ray Saylor said. "Last week, about every other day we were getting new price changes. It just kept going up and up. I’ve never seen ground beef at $7 a pound in 42 years. Never."
Ellis Taylor, proprietor of Taylor's Cajun Meat Company in New Albany, agreed that the jump in cost is unlike anything he's ever seen. Some steaks at his shop have shot up in price by 45%.
The steady incline was first started about a month ago, Taylor estimated.
"It’s just slowly rising up," he said. "Last week, it just skyrocketed. I’ve never seen prices like this in the 26 years I’ve been in this business... Each week it’s just gone up further and further. It’s like it’s not stopping. You wait for it to stop, because it keeps rising and rising and rising, but it’s not.”
Taylor pointed to similar situations from the past, like bird flu causing a rise in chicken prices. Those hikes, however, are usually limited to one meat.
Today's prices are going up across the board, affecting all meats. The problem is being attributed to the slowing of operations at large meat packing plants around the country.
Companies like JBS and Tyson, two giants in the American meat industry, have shut down several facilities due to employees testing positive for COVID-19. This has led to disruption in the supply chain.
"I’ve learned there’s really just a handful of plants that do all of this," Clements said. "When one or two have problems, everybody has problems. It’s been a learning experience, even for us... When a plant shuts down in Illinois, it affects the whole area.”
Saylor said that out of every 10 beef items he's recently ordered for Cash Saver, he may only get two. Only three pieces of beef out of his last order of 12 were received by the store.
Both Cash Saver and Taylor's indicated that they have cut price margins to mitigate the situation. Clements said that Cash Saver is selling meat for little profit, with consumer prices being "pennies above" what the store pays.
The situation isn't much different at Taylor's. There, margins have been cut back to keep customers coming in at a steady rate.
"I should be charging a lot more than what I’m doing," Taylor said. "But I just don’t feel like the customer should take all the hit. We’re trying to take care of our customers as much as we can and try to keep the cost as low as we can for as long as we can."
Prices aren't expected to steady overnight, or any time soon for that matter. Taylor has heard that it will be at least another month before customers see any relief.
A much grimmer forecast was put forward by Saylor.
"It’ll be winter before we see anything go down to normal, I think," he said. "I think we better get used to seeing this as part of the norm for a while.”