Sep 21, 2021 - Economy

The great holiday shortage

Illustration of the ribbons around a gift tied up without an actual gift box.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Brace yourself: It's going to be hard to find everything — not just your favorite holiday foods and hot toys and gifts but also basic staples like coffee and footwear — because of supply chain problems that will likely persist at least through next spring.

Why it matters: Scarce resources will likely lead to more scuffles among shoppers in brick-and-mortar stores, fewer deals for Black Friday and online price wars that could threaten the livelihood of already-suffering retailers.

Driving the news: Stores of all sizes and specialties are already trying to hoard things in warehouses — from turkeys, stuffing and cranberry sauce to Halloween decorations, video game consoles and those chic fleecy sweaters that everyone seems to want.

Record numbers of cargo ships are bobbing off key ports like Long Beach and Los Angeles in California waiting to be unloaded, due to pandemic restrictions, labor shortages and record-high prices for Chinese shipping containers. And big-box retailers are taking matters into their own hands.

  • Walmart is chartering its own vessels so it won't be at the mercy of overstrapped vendors — and some of those charters are deliberately small enough to be able to unload at secondary ports where there aren't such big backups.
  • Home Depot "has reserved its own ship, bought merchandise on the spot market and flown in power tools as it copes with supply chain headaches," per CNBC. President and COO Ted Decker told CNBC it marked "the first time that the company has taken such a step."
  • Lululemon is adding extra air shipments to try to sidestep overburdened ports.

State of play: MGA Entertainment and Basic Fun, the huge toy distributors behind LOL Surprise! dolls, Little Tikes, Bratz dolls, Tonka trucks, Fisher-Price toys, K'nex and the like, say that kid-pleasers like these will be scarcer and more expensive, as CNN reported.

  • "There is going to be a major shortage of toy products this year," MGA Entertainment CEO Isaac Larian told CNN Business.
  • "The [shipping[ container that cost $3,200 last year is now $22,000," Larian told the network, blaming Maersk and other shipping giants.
  • Jay Foreman, CEO of Basic Fun, told CNN: "You're going to find various times during the holiday season where the store shelves are going to have empty holes in them."

The problems include COVID-19 outbreaks in key Asian supplier countries, severe shortages of domestic truckers and warehouse workers, and wildfires that have closed apparel factories in Bangladesh.

  • Vietnam and Indonesia, where stores like Gap and Nike have a lot of factories, are being devastated by the Delta variant.

Between the lines: The global supply chain is so broken that only the biggest stores will be able to obtain and store sufficient inventory — and nobody can predict how long the situation will last.

  • After last year's holiday shopping binge, "the factories quickly sold out of their inventory and, frankly, everyone is still playing catch-up," says Brittain Ladd, chief supply chain and marketing officer of Kuecker Pulse Integration (KPI), which helps companies like Amazon, CVS and Walgreens automate supply chains and fulfillment centers.
  • "Everyone is crossing their fingers that this works itself out by spring of 2022," but there are no guarantees, Ladd tells Axios.

What's next: Humanoid robots like Digit from Agility Robotics may one day be able to compensate for labor shortages.

  • Digit the robot, which recently went on sale, is supposed to be able to handle last-mile deliveries and warehouse jobs — it can climb ladders and pick up boxes.
  • Ford is its first customer, per Business Insider.

The other side: Consulting firms are pumping out rosy spending projections for the coming holiday season.

  • Mastercard predicts this will be "the most wonderful holiday retail season on record," with retail sales growing 7.4% (excluding automotive and gas). 
  • Deloitte pegs the increase at between 7% and 9% and says "e-commerce sales will grow by 11% to 15%, year-over-year," to $210 billion to $218 billion this holiday season versus $189 billion last year.
  • Per DealAid: "Consumers plan to spend $974 on average [a 4.7% increase versus 2020] during the holiday season this year."

The bottom line: "What I hope consumers have already started to do is shop," Ladd says. "Consumers really should understand that out of all the seasons they've been faced with, they really need to start this one as soon as possible."

  • He cautions: "I don't think they should put their hopes into the big toy or the big fashion item that could arrive. The attitude should be, 'Let's not be as picky as maybe we've been in the past few years. Let's be happy with what we can find.'"
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