The school year just began, Halloween is coming, and Thanksgiving plans are still hanging in the air. Most people's hands are full.
Still, many people are now ordering year-end presents. Amazon has begun Black Friday deals early, and more than 40% of retailers recently told logistics firm Ware2Go that they're already at "peak" holiday shopping levels. It may be because consumers have gotten the message that things they buy on Black Friday might not arrive by Christmas a month later, let alone Hanukkah, which this year sees the first candle lit on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
It's true that shipping on any product you order online can take longer than usual. Global shortages of microprocessors, magnets and plastic have slowed production to a halt. Due to historically higher demand, COVID-related port closures, and storm-induced chaos, shipping has been hampered when goods are available. Tennis balls, couches, and even pickles have been affected, according to officials. Seventy-three cargo ships are expected to unload at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on Saturday, a new record.
It's impossible to predict whether a specific laptop, sound system, or pair of jeans will be in stock before the holidays.
"If there's something you need or want, the risk of not having it in time for the holidays is high," said Mark Stanton, PowerFleet'' general manager of supply chain solutions. He advises people to shop ahead of the holiday shopping season, if possible.
Holiday shopping rushes are nothing new, and the sales season has begun earlier in the year. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is now the general accepted start of the shopping season. Online sales begin often earlier than in the traditional retail setting.
According to the National Retail Federation, shopping for the holidays has fueled about a fifth of annual retail sales in recent years, with US retail turnover topping $787 billion in November and December of 2020. Online spending accounted for more than 26% of that figure, according to the National Research Foundation.
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The shopping season is so well-anchored in our culture that it served as the backdrop for Jingle All The Way, a comedy featuring wildly panicked Arnold Schwarzenegger on the hunt for he should buy. Tickle Me Elmo, a toy based on the Sesame Street character, was released in 1996, the same year that fights between parents in Walmart aisles over Ticker Me - Elmos, another Semestreet toying. Some desperate parents chased delivery trucks after delivery vehicles to get their hands on the fuzzy, red monster toy, which emits electronic giggles.
A single toy hasn't dominated holiday sales as much in recent years. However, if an Elmo equivalent is found, it will be harder to find this time around than usual. According to e-commerce services firm CommerceIQ, it may be more expensive because toy manufacturers may recover the higher shipping cost with full-price sales of high-demand toys near the holidays. And the delays won't be restricted to toys. Anything computerized, magnetic, or made of plastic -- think electronics, appliances, and home goods -- might be difficult to obtain.
Missing materials have been found.
Microchips are used to power everything that runs software, including cars. The shortage of chips, triggered by a production lag early in the epidemic followed by rising demand, has made it difficult for manufacturers to produce enough computers, phones, and tablets to fulfill orders, which soared during COVID lockdowns.
Since chips are in so many items, the shortage is weighing down other products than home electronics. As it looked for more chips, Ford had to temporarily shut down some of its F-150, the nation's most popular car, as it attempted to secure more.
Magnets, which are found in a variety of products, from toys to electronics, have also been in short supply. SDM Magnetics, a manufacturer, recently told customers that China has tightened regulations on the mining of rare earth minerals used in magnets. That's prompted some middlemen to hold onto mineral supplies, resulting in fewer and more expensive magnets for sale.
A series of events sparked by early pandemic shutdowns has also created a shortage of one of modern society's most common materials: plastic. That's meant backlogs for cars and RVs, house siding and PVC pipe, and disposable restaurant supplies like plastic cups.
Bindiya Vakil, a supply chain expert, wrote in the Harvard Business Review that storms exacerbated the shortage by shutting down Texas and Louisiana oil producers that process the chemicals used in manufacturing plastic. Hurricane Laura struck the Gulf Coast in August 2020 and continued with an ice storm in early 2021.
Since those early setbacks, plastic makers haven't caught up to demand. That was one of the factors that stifled production and shipping of Rainbow High dolls, a toy that MGA Entertainment CEO Isaac Larian recently told The Washington Post that may not make it to the US in time for Christmas.
Due to the widespread spread of the delta variant, the apparel industry in Vietnam, where increasing amounts of clothing are produced, has been hit by factory closures because of this disease. Nike said on Thursday that the consequences of the shutdowns will continue into the New Year, when it expects to see product shortages.
Port closures and shipping container shortages have resulted in port closure and ship closure.
Shortages of components and materials aren't the only reason why the perfect gift for your loved one might not make it to a US warehouse in time for you to receive it by December. Prior to being sent overseas, goods from overseas are packed into shipping containers. Then they're loaded and sent to warehouses around the country. That isn't happening quickly right now.
The shipping slowdown is caused by a huge flow of goods and stale containers and equipment. With an increasing number of goods coming out of ports, logistics firms aren't always able to hire enough people to drive trucks and unload containers at their warehouses throughout the country, according to Stanton, the supply chain expert. That slows the flow of empty containers back to ports in China and Vietnam and makes them even harder to get.
COVID-19, and storms have shattered the industry as well. If a port is shut down due to weather or an outbreak, later points in the delivery system are thrown out of sync. In July, a typhoon destroyed an area of coastal China that's home to several ports, closing air, rail, and sea transportation. In August, the Meidong Container Terminal shut down its operations at the Ningbo Zhoushan port in response to a single positive COVID test. The decision effectively closed the world's third-most popular port.
The highly contagious delta variant may lead to more port closures in the future. In any event, the combination of disruptions has pushed the shipping cost up dramatically, making it even harder for businesses to import goods.
The system has also been plagued by random setbacks, such as when the cargo ship Ever Given sunk itself into the Suez Canal in July, bringing a major shipping thoroughfare to halt for nearly october. Because of factory closures in Vietnam, Nike expects to see a spike in the production of its products in New Year.
"It really is this ripple effect that goes down the supply chain," said Jen Blackhurst, a professor of business analytics at the University of Iowa.
Alternatives to buying early are the following:
If you don't want to spend the next three months tracking packages online, consider opting out of purchasing items shipped from overseas. Sure, you may have looked for alternatives to whatever the hot gift was in the past, but this is the year to reconsider.
If you have the time and skill, you can make homemade gifts or give out vouchers for babysitting or yard work, if that's something the recipient will appreciate. Tickets to events, museum memberships, or restaurant gift cards are all inexpensive options -- and let your loved ones enjoy an outing.
Locally sourced produce is also a possibility. Many small businesses sell locally made goods online, whether via a web ordering platform or Instagram and Facebook pages promoting new products, according to Rachel Smith, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce's president and CEO.
Smith noted that "local businesses that have added or enhanced their e-commerce platforms have handled the epidemic better" than those that didn't.
Dan Wallace-Brewster, a senior vice president of marketing at e-commerce services firm Scalefast, claims that consumers are increasingly comfortable buying secondhand goods online. Retailers and device makers frequently sell refurbished electronics on their websites, and the discounts they offer mean your budget can stretch a bit further than it would on something new. Luxury brand resellers, such as the Real Real and the Vestiaire Collective, have sprung up to offer big name brands at lower prices than retailers or manufacturers.
The products these firms sell are typically already available in the United States, which implies there's little concern about the global supply chain. The high quality of goods offered on the sites, as well as the increasing acceptance of customer preferences, has gotten to the point where "you might be willing to give a secondhand product from the right market and not be ashamed of it," Wallace-Brewster stated.
If you're still frantically preparing for your holiday gift exchange, there's one more tried-and-true option: a gift certificate. It's either that or tying a bow around an ordered -- but undeliverable -- gift.