Retro foods at modern prices cover a supply problem

by April Lisante
Posted 10/13/21

Retro foods are making a comeback, and you’ll also find it might be harder right about now to find all the new products you got hooked on pre-pandemic.

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Retro foods at modern prices cover a supply problem

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I’m one of those rare people who enjoys going to the grocery store.

Perhaps it was by default, since I do it so often, that maybe I somehow talked myself into enjoying it. But I really do enjoy walking the aisles and planning meals or picking out desserts to bake.

I also get wowed when I see new products – and the return of old ones.

That’s the curious thing that happened to me during a recent trip to my local Giant. I came around a corner and stopped dead in the orange juice aisle when I saw the display of retro cereals aimed at Halloween.

There they were, all the beloved childhood favorites that greeted me on my bleary-eyed school day mornings: Count Chocula, Franken Berry and Boo Berry. And what was this?  A bonus 50th anniversary limited edition “Monster Mash” box compilation of all the cereals I ate as a tot, with retro images including the elusive Yummy Mummy and Fruit Brute only us 80s kids will recall.

It turns out this isn’t just clever holiday marketing, it is a sign of the times. Retro foods are making a comeback, and you’ll also find it might be harder right about now to find all the new products you got hooked on pre-pandemic. A new hazelnut coffee creamer I was acutely addicted to suddenly disappeared this year. Progresso has ratcheted down its 88 flavors of soup to somewhere in the 40s, and Campbell’s has done the same. 

With transportation prices rising, wildfire crop loss looming and animal feed costs increasing, companies aren’t in the business right now of playing around with pricey marketing campaigns for new flavors, new releases and new products that might tank when they hit the shelves.

“When we look at some of those retro brands, they [companies] think let’s give that a shot rather than introduce new flavors,” said Phil Lempert, otherwise known as the nation’s Supermarket Guru.

Lempert, an expert for all things grocery, is a recurring guest on the Today show and has a Web site called supermarketguru.com. He follows trends, knows his products, and spoke with me about what's been going on since the pandemic, and how the price increases aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

“With the pandemic and the break in the supply chain, we are seeing a lot of businesses cutting down on their offerings,” Lempert said. “Prices are not going to come down for a good year and a half to two years.

“Having retro brands sort of hides the fact that prices are going up. People say ‘Look! I haven’t seen this for a long time!’

Kind of like the giddy me who bought three boxes of the cereal without even looking at the prices so I could make my kids eat them before school, just like I did.

Lempert predicts we are going to see the soda can category go more retro as well, as people hang their hat on nostalgia and might not realize the price is increasing as the price of aluminum goes up. They will also have to get used to buying things in smaller packaging. Almost every ice cream brand has scaled down from 16-ounce to 14-ounce pints recently. I bet you never even noticed. I hadn’t.

In fact, the price of pretty much everything has been up since the pandemic. A report last week cited bacon as being the highest it’s been in 40 years – with inflation factored in - up 28 percent this past year. The problem is three-fold: transportation, the environment and the factories and conditions in which products are made. Truck drivers are getting harder and harder to hire, and transportation costs, including things like refrigerated transport, are up nearly ten-and-a-half percent in recent months.

Couple that with the fact that wildfires have ravaged soy and corn crops, and food factories are having a hard time running at full speed. That’s one of the reasons for bacon’s spike. Processing plants were shut down due to Covid outbreaks and farmers were ultimately forced to thin their herds.

“Food factories were not built for social distancing,” said Lempert, adding he predicts we will eventually see twenty or thirty smaller meat packing plants for every current large one, and they’ll be spread across the country to cut down on transportation. 

We are also paying higher prices for products produced by animals, Lempert said. The cost of grain is high, and animals are pretty much eating 24/7 so we can buy everything from hamburgers to cheese. That means everything from chicken wings to ribs to string cheese is going up.

“We really have to reimagine the supply chain,” said Lempert. “You and I are going to have to pay those higher prices, especially for anything to do with animals.”

Animals and throwback childhood cereals, it seems.

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