As staff shortages continue to plague industries across the country, thinning supermarket shelves and reinstated purchase limits have made customers anxious.

But Stan Liacos, chief executive of Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market reckons there’s no need to worry, food shortages aren’t the case everywhere – you’ve just got to know where to shop.

Across Australia, fresh-food markets are largely avoiding the supply issues suffered by the major supermarkets. City markets like the Vic, Preston and Prahran in Melbourne and Paddy’s in Haymarket and Flemington in Sydney are not only keeping food on the shelves, but Laicos says markets also offer shoppers competitive prices, “infinitely better quality” and a lot less plastic packaging.

“Certainly we’re not visibly seeing any stock issues,” Liacos tells Broadsheet. “Our retailers are smaller and therefore have a lot more flexibility where they buy their stock.”

It’s a similar story here. “Our markets are operating as usual; stock is coming in daily and going out daily,” says Sydney Markets board member and wholesaler Shaun McInerney. There’s been some Covid staffing issues, but adds that the market is, to a degree, run by independent retailers so their businesses are largely protected because of diversity in both supply and delivery systems.

Liacos explains that major retailers are often locked into exclusive, years-long contracts that prevent them from switching up suppliers when issues arise, leaving them open to disruptions and shortages. For smaller, independent traders it can be as simple as wandering to another vendor at the wholesale market or giving local suppliers a call.

He says the Queen Victoria Market has 10 fishmongers and more than 60 fruit and vegetable traders and they source their own stock on market days from Melbourne’s two major wholesale markets: Kensington Seafood market and Epping Wholesale Fruit and Vegetable market, both of which are closed to the public. Similarly, the market’s nearly 40 butchers largely get their stock locally and can easily pivot if they run into problems with suppliers. And the same goes for markets all around the country.

Providores and retail vendors also usually manage their own transport, says Liacos, meaning they aren’t reliant on logistics companies. He adds that smaller retailers tend to avoid long-term contracts and dealing with distribution warehouses, due to the fresh nature of their stock.

The net result is that the independent traders of the Vic and Paddy’s Markets, and others like them, are able to pick and choose their suppliers based on availability, quality and price. And with less people involved in the supply chain, disruptions can be more easily avoided.

Laicos says “Maybe about 10 to 20 per cent of our traders are Covid impacted on any one day. But when you’ve got 40 butchers, for example, even if eight of those are out, you’ve still got plenty of options.”

The competitive atmosphere also helps apply downward pressure on prices – from bargain basement produce to competitively priced meats and deli goods.

Liacos says market shopping isn’t exclusive and expensive, or reserved for foodies. “Some retailers do operate at the upper end, but there’s also a hell of a lot who are operating at the lower end.” McInerney also points out that markets offer easy access to “good eating” but “not so pretty” produce at great prices and at scale.

How to get the most out of shopping at Melbourne’s markets

Laicos also recommends avoiding the early Saturday busy period. Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays are when you’re likely to have a more mellow experience. Paying attention to how shoppers and traders interact can help give you a sense of market etiquette, so be observant.

Investing in a decent trolley is also key. “A good one will last you 10 or 20 years,” he says, pointing out there’s a few trolley retailers on site and you can even hire one. And almost all vendors have tap-and-go facilities for payment.

McInerney’s advice is more intrepid. “Embrace it, it’s a beautiful thing going to the market. Don’t be afraid to walk the floor before you purchase anything … have a hunt around because there’s a lot of options. Just get in early and go for your life.”