Our weekly shopping survey has come back with depleted shopping baskets in Northern Ireland. Does that indicate a problem with availability? Anne Bruce looks for an explanation

Given Ireland’s associations with the potato, you would always expect to find a ready supply of them in supermarkets in Northern Ireland. But not new potatoes, it seems. Since June, when The Grocer 33 shopping survey was extended to the province, new potatoes have been unavailable seven times, which is the worst out of stock record for all the 33 products on the list.

But it’s not just new potatoes where we have spotted unprecedented availability issues. Minced beef has been out of stock five times, ranking second worst, and frozen chips, eggs and sausages come a joint third, with four out of stocks each.

It took a staggering 12 weeks for one of our mystery shoppers to bring home a complete basket, and that was from Sainsbury’s flagship Forestside store in Belfast. Sainsbury has had the best run of those surveyed since June, averaging 1.8 out of stocks a week, compared with Tesco’s 3.8 and Safeway’s 2.25.

So does The Grocer 33 demonstrate that the population in Northern Ireland eats its new potatoes - or mince for that matter - faster than anyone can supply them? Or are the gaps in the shelves evidence that the multiples have got problems in their food distribution chains?

The supermarkets deny that availability problems in the province’s stores are created by the extended supply chain or by a reliance on smaller local suppliers. But a
Sainsbury spokesman agrees delivery costs are higher and Safeway supply director Mark Aylwin admits the company’s stores in Northern Ireland do present a supply challenge.

In the last four visits to a Safeway store there, nine out of stocks were recorded, compared with three in the last four visits to Safeway stores in the rest of the UK.

Aylwin says a major problem is the volume of goods crossing the Irish Sea. Like most of the big food retailers operating in the province Safeway sources high volumes of perishables locally. However, it ships in the bulk - some 60% - of the rest of its stock through Scotland. That complicates the supply chain and extends delivery timelines, especially if the Irish Sea is rough. Even when it is not, the crossing takes two-and-a-half hours, on top of the same period from the Scottish depot to the port. All that haulage puts up the bill.

Aylwin says. “The challenge is the crossing. We were caught out early on by the weather, which is why we built the Larne depot.”

The chain makes use of an advance weather forecasting and ships are sent out early if the weather is bad. It also keeps higher stocks in its Larne depot in winter as a precaution, he says.

But the Co-operative Group - which has been visited twice in the province by our mystery shoppers - dismisses the significance of the weather. It has a depot in Carrickfergus in the province but ships half its stock from the mainland. A spokesman says there was only one late sailing last winter. He says stores have daily deliveries and chilled, frozen and ambient stock is delivered in line with demand.

Tesco has been the worst performer in Northern Ireland since The Grocer 33 started up in the province, experiencing particular problems with new potatoes, eggs and chips. A spokesman denies there’s a problem but says new stock checking initiatives to ensure availability have been put in place. These are the 8am moment of certainty, the 4pm Rumble - where all staff including management fill shelves - and a Fit for Five stock check. Stock is also replenished for the evening rush.

As we reported last week, Sainsbury has