With the holiday shopping season fast approaching, many businesses are still waiting for critical goods stuck in port traffic. The race is on to unload containers to reach store shelves.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The busy Christmas shopping season is almost here. But a lot of holiday merchandise is still stuck in traffic. The gridlock in West Coast ports is not improving. And for every freight container stacked on a dock or stuck in a rail yard, there’s a nervous importer staring at the schedule, wondering if the things he’s ordered will arrive in time for Christmas. NPR’s Scott Horsley reports on the high-stakes race to get goods off ships and into stores before it’s too late.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Bonnie Ross (ph) works for a small clothing company that sells jeans, fleeces and workout gear, mostly at discount stores like Ross and Burlington Coat Factory.
BONNIE ROSS: We work on high volumes, with very, very tight margins.
HORSLEY: The company is called Nothin’ But Net (ph). This year, however, getting its products from factories in Asia to stores in the United States has only been aggravation every step of the way.
ROSS: First of all, I couldn’t get the containers to get them out of China. And then I couldn’t get them on a boat. Now they finally get here. They sit in ports for God knows how long. And now I can’t have a truck to pick it up because there are no trucks.
Now I have received a whole new education. Do you know what a chassis is?
HORSLEY: A chassis, as Ross learned the hard way, is the trailer that a shipping container sits on when pulled by a truck. At the moment it is difficult to find an available chassis. Many of them are stuck under empty containers, which means it takes longer to get full containers out of the port.
PETER GRIMM: I have drivers who are frustrated at the moment because we can’t move more containers. We do what is necessary to move the cargo because if we don’t, we don’t eat.
HORSLEY: Peter Grimm runs trucking company TK Transport in Compton, California. Most of what he delivers these days is bad news. Ross had a container stuck in port for a full month.
ROSS: We had a trucker who wanted us to pay $5,000 to pick up my goods from the port. I don’t make those kind of margins. For example, I am not Tommy Hilfiger. If they have to pay $3 more per garment, they don’t care. But for us, that’s it.
HORSLEY: Eventually Ross managed to get a few containers out of the port, but eight more are still in transit. And his discount store customers are growing impatient. In some cases, Ross bypasses crowded distribution centers and ships products directly to retail stores. Otherwise, she says, they might not get there before Christmas.
ROSS: We’re at the point where, you’re not shipping now, it’s not okay.
HORSLEY: And those delays come at a serious cost. Bobby Javaheri (ph) runs a business that imports small appliances like air fryers and pressure cookers. Some people buy these things all year round, says Javaheri, but the festive season is crucial.
BOBBY JAVAHERI: We had a retailer buy 50,000 air fryers from us last year for a Black Friday promotion. They’ve done so well and they’ve come back to us for Black Friday 2021. Now they’re going to have to remove their promotion because the merchandise won’t arrive in time – that’s over $1 million worth of merchandise. It is a disaster.
HORSLEY: As if the dockside delays weren’t bad enough, one of Javaheri’s containers actually went overboard, one of more than 100 that overturned a freighter in rough seas off the coast of coasts of British Columbia last month as the ship waited to enter a crowded port.
JAVAHERI: That’s all I needed. My father is 88 years old. He’s been doing this for over 50 years. He doesn’t even understand what’s going on. It’s crazy like that.
HORSLEY: A big part of what’s driving this crazy traffic jam is booming demand. Containers are falling largely because Americans are buying more stuff than ever before, about 26 million import containers this year. Although some of this merchandise won’t reach its destination by Christmas – and some items are sold out – you’re unlikely to find row after row of empty shelves. Many retailers started stocking up early in anticipation of a busy season. Danny Reynolds runs a clothing store in Elkhart, Indiana, which just celebrated its 90th anniversary.
DANNY REYNOLDS: Our store started during the Great Depression in 1931, so I always say we were built to last, but everything was different.
HORSLEY: Reynolds says deliveries this year have been spotty. The merchandise he expected to receive in mid-summer suddenly appeared in October. Luckily, it wasn’t bathing suits, and it doesn’t return anything. Reynolds’ store is fully stocked for the holidays, and he thinks a lot of people will be eager to buy.
REYNOLDS: From an inventory standpoint, we’re ready. If they don’t come, boy, am I going to have a big sellout (laughs) early next year.
HORSLEY: Reynolds is already thinking about ordering merchandise for next spring and summer. There are few signs that the freight bottleneck will be resolved by then.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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