Global shipping delays are looming over retailers for the holidays

WASHINGTON – There were 73 days until Christmas, and the clock was ticking for Catch Co.

The Chicago-based fishing company had secured a place to sell a new product, an Advent calendar for fishing enthusiasts called “12 Days of Fishmas,” in 2,650 Walmart stores nationwide. But like so many products this holiday season, calendars were stuck in a massive traffic jam in the flow of goods from Asian factories to American store shelves.

As Black Friday approached rapidly, many of the calendars were stuck in a 40-foot steel box in the courtyard of the Port of Long Beach, blocked by other containers filled with toys, furniture and car parts. Truckers had come several times to pick up the Catch Co. container, but they had been turned away. Dozens more ships sat in the harbor waiting for their turn to dock. It was just a small piece in a huge maze of shipping containers that thousands of American retailers were desperately trying to reach.

“There are delays in every part of the supply chain,” said Tim MacGuidwin, the company’s chief operations officer. “You are very much out of control.”

Catch Co. is one of the many companies that have been at the mercy of global supply chain disruptions this year. Lack of workers, pandemic closures, strong consumer demand, and other factors have come together to break the global conveyor belt that mixes consumer goods from Chinese factories, through U.S. ports, and along railroads and highways to households and stores around the United States.

American shoppers get nervous as they realize that certain toys, electronics and bikes may not arrive in time for the holidays. Lack of both finished products and components needed to manufacture things like cars, putting in rising prices, halting work in American factories and stifling economic growth.

The disruption has also become a problem for President Biden, who has been denounced on Fox News as “the grin who stole Christmas.”

The White House supply chain task force has worked with private companies to try to speed up the flow of goods, even considering deploying the National Guard to help drive trucks. But the president seems to have limited power to remedy a supply chain crisis that is both global in nature and associated with much larger economic forces that are beyond his control. On Sunday, Mr. Bid with other world leaders in the group of 20 in Rome to discuss the challenges of the supply chain.

October 13, the same day as Catch Co. waiting for its calendars to clear the harbor, Mr. Biden that the port of Los Angeles and companies like FedEx and Walmart would move toward 24-hour operations and join the port of Long Beach, where a terminal had begun to stay open 24 hours just a few weeks before.

“This is a major first step in accelerating the movement of materials and goods through our supply chain,” said Mr. Biden. “But now we need the rest of the private sector chain to go up as well.”

Mr. MacGuidwin praised the announcement, but said it was too late to make a big difference for Catch Co., which had been working through the supply chain’s headaches for many months.

The company’s problems first began with pandemic-related factory closures in China and other countries, which led to a shortage of graphite used to make fishing rods. A worldwide battle for shipping containers soon followed as Americans began spending less on movies, travel, and restaurants and more on equipping their home offices, gyms, and playrooms with products made in Asian factories.

Freight prices rose tenfold, and large corporations turned to extreme measures to deliver their goods. Walmart, Costco and Target began chartering their own ships to ferry products from Asia, hiring thousands of new warehouse workers and truck drivers.

Smaller companies like Catch Co. struggled to keep up. As soon as Apple, for example, launched a new iPhone, the available shipping containers disappeared and were redirected to ship Apple products abroad.

The timing could not have been worse for Catch Co., which saw an increase in demand for its rods, lures and other products as fishing became an ideal pandemic hobby. The company turned briefly to air freight products to meet demand, but at five or six times the price of sea freight, it cut into the company’s profits.

Supply chain problems became an even bigger problem for Catch Co.’s “12 Days of Fishmas” calendar, which included the company’s plastic worms, silver fishing hooks and painted lures hidden behind cardboard windows. The calendar, which sells for $ 24.98, was a “big deal” for the company, Mr. MacGuidwin. It would account for more than 15 percent of the company’s holiday sales and introduce customers to its other products. But it had an expiration date: Who would buy an Advent calendar after Christmas?

Mr. MacGuidwin thought briefly about saving late arrivals for next year before realizing that the calendar said “2021.”

“It can’t be sold after Christmas,” he said. “It’s a discarded product after that.”

Like many American companies, Catch Co. had tried to prepare for the global delays.

The Chinese factories the company works with began producing the calendar in April, before Walmart had even confirmed its orders. On July 10, the calendars were sent to Qingdao port. But a global container shortage kept the calendars idle in the Chinese port for a month while they waited for a box to be sent in.

On September 1, nearly three weeks after setting sail across the Pacific Ocean, the vessel anchored off the coast of Southern California along with 119 other ships vying to unload. Two weeks later, Catch Co.’s containers were off the ship, descending into the maze of crates at the Long Beach harbor.

The twin ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles – which together handle 40 percent of the shipping containers brought into the United States – have struggled to keep up with the increase in imports for many months.

Altogether, the ports of Southern California handled 15.3 million 20-foot containers in the first nine months of the year, an increase of about a quarter compared to last year. Port workers and hauliers had worked long hours throughout the pandemic. More than 100 trains, each at least three miles long, left the Los Angeles Basin each day.

But this fall, the ports and warehouses in Southern California were so crowded that many cranes in the harbor actually had stallwithout space to store the containers or hauliers to transport them away.

On September 21, the Port of Long Beach announced that an attempt had been made to keep a terminal open around the clock. A few weeks later, at Mr. Biden’s request and with the support of various unions, the Port of Los Angeles and Union Pacific’s nearby facility in California joined.

So far, only a few hauliers have arrived during the extended hours. Ports have pointed to bottlenecks in other parts of the supply chain – including a shortage of hauliers and overcrowded warehouses that can no longer fit products through their doors.

“We are in a national crisis,” said Mario Cordero, CEO of the Port of Long Beach. “It will be a sustained dynamic until we have full control over the virus that is ahead of us.”

Previously, Catch Co. sent often products from West Coast ports by rail. However, longer travel times on railway lines – as well as the high demand for containers in Chinese ports – mean that shipping companies have been reluctant to let their containers go too far from the sea.

So instead, the Catch Co. calendars were moved by truck to a warehouse outside the port owned by freight forwarder Flexport. There, they were placed on another truck to be sent to Catch Co.’s distribution center in Kansas City, where workers repacked the calendars for Walmart.

Mr. MacGuidwin estimated that the calendars would arrive in Walmart stores by November 17 – just in time for Black Friday. The entire calendar trip from factory to store shelves would take about 130 days this year, compared to the typical 60.

Mr. MacGuidwin said he believes the supply chain’s difficulties could ease next year as port, rail and truck companies gradually work through their backlog. Asia remains the best place to manufacture many of their goods, he said. However, if shipping costs remain high and disruption persists, they may consider purchasing more products from the United States and Latin America.

Catch Co. has already started designing his calendar for next year and is still deciding whether to say “2022.”

“It’s an open question,” Mr. MacGuidwin.

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