Release the hounds! This weekend marked the start of the great holiday hunt, as shoppers dash off in pursuit of those perfect gifts, only to be outfoxed by kinks in the supply chain.
“COVID disruptions, labor shortages and pent-up demand from consumers who have been stuck home and are now hankering to spend have conspired,” said Robert Handfield, a professor of operations and supply chain management at North Carolina State University. “Holiday shoppers are feeling the squeeze of a global supply chain under duress.”
He then tries to describe the foot-bone’s-connected-to-the-ankle-bone problem to the likes of me. Ships carrying supplies, parts and products are stuck in port. Suppliers and makers of parts and products need materials as well as workers, which are also in short supply. Both suppliers and manufacturers need trucks. And trucks need drivers. So shelves and stockrooms lie empty, and Americans need gifts in time for the holidays.
Fa-la-la-la-la. All this just makes you just want to toss back another eggnog.
Even if the product is available, shoppers are facing higher prices and shipping delays. And don’t even think about waiting for a screaming deal. Get it while you can.
Much of the problem begins at the Los Angeles Port, Handfield said, which is the single largest point of entry for goods in the country. “The L.A. port’s volume has grown 30 to 40 percent over last year at this time. The ships are so backed up they can’t unload their cargo, which is mostly coming from China.”
The problem is so bad that Walmart, foreseeing that holiday merchandise wouldn’t arrive in time, has asked some ships to turn around and go back, he added.
This does not bode well for someone who has his heart set on getting a PlayStation 5.
“What’s a shopper to do?” I ask.
Besides the obvious — shop and ship early — avoid the mentality that you have to get that certain someone a certain something. Be open to other, perhaps more thoughtful, options.
“Finding a local, handmade present is better than buying the latest whizbang gadget mass produced in a Chinese factory,” Handfield said.
Despite the shortages, which certainly could make for a frustrating, frazzling holiday season, here are 10 ways experts say we can beat supply chain woes:
1. Buy local
This not only supports the local economy, but is also the best way to avoid shipping delays and lets you make sure you have your gifts in hand.
2. Buy American
Companies that make and source their products domestically have far better control of their supply chain than those that rely on importing.
For instance, Red Land Cotton, a grower and maker of cotton products, doesn’t deal with any port-related slowdowns, said Anna Brakefield, who co-owns the business with her farmer father. The company grows the cotton on the family farm in Alabama, then makes products in nearby Georgia and South Carolina. Many of their competitors import cotton from India and China. It’s a difference Red Land boasts about in its advertising.
“They’ve got a legitimate point,” said Handfield. “Bringing manufacturing back to the United States not only helps circumvent supply chain issues, but is also good for the country. You may pay a little more, but we should support American businesses and workers.”
3. Buy secondhand
As more Americans embrace sustainability and a reuse economy, more feel comfortable buying secondhand gifts online from resellers, said Amanda Morse, co-owner of List Perfectly, an e-commerce tool that helps sellers post items on multiple reseller sites.
According to recent survey by Zogby Analytics, 38 percent of U.S. adults planned to buy secondhand items as gifts. Buying secondhand lets gift-givers circumvent supply chain shortages because they know the product exists. Now all they have to worry about is shipping.
“When buying secondhand, pay close attention to the seller’s shipping policies,”” said Morse, “or you may end up buying from someone on vacation.”
4. Buy online and pick up in-store
For that last-minute shopper who needs that gift quick, ordering online from a large retailer, then picking the item up at the nearest store can save precious shipping days; the fulfillment tracks for these stores are well greased.
5. Avoid anything on back order or coming from another country
“Just forget it,” said Handfield. “Today the issue is not so much getting from the distribution center to your home; the bottleneck is the port. If it’s in the United States and in stock, you’re good. But if it’s on back order, and the stated lead time is three to six weeks, watch out.”
6. Avoid anything with a chip
“Semiconductor chips are a huge problem, and the back orders will continue all year,” Handfield said.
He also advises avoiding electronics in general.
7. Pay for premium shipping
Just do it.
8. Ship direct
When ordering gifts for distant friends and relatives, rather than having an item shipped to you, only so you can wrap it and send it on, ship direct. Pay a little extra for gift wrapping if the seller offers that, or enlist someone in the recipient’s household to wrap the gift for you.
9. Give subscriptions
Consider giving a consumable gift that keeps giving. Here are some ideas for monthly subscriptions: Fresh flowers (BloomsyBox, starting at $45 a month); assorted beauty products (Ipsy sells glam bags for $13 a month); gourmet meal kits (Blue Apron or Hello Fresh); monthly massages (Massage Envy or Hand & Stone); or, for the intellectually curious, a subscription to Master Class, which offers online courses from A-list talent for $180 a year. These gifts won’t clutter closets and won’t be on back order.
10. Let gift cards do the giving
And you can often send e-gift cards and skip the shipping.
“Perhaps,” I say to Handfield, as we wrap up our gift conversation, “by following these tips, many could enjoy their most meaningful Christmas yet.”
“Agreed,” he said. “I am all for fewer gifts from China and more from the heart.”