Toilet paper is back on shelves, but these 6 things are still tough to find nearly a year into the pandemic
If you’re buying furniture, a mountain bike, fishing gear or a car, expect to be greeted with this message: “Some deliveries may be delayed due to COVID-19.”
2020 was marked by shortages of toilet paper, Clorox wipes and mac and cheese at the supermarket. But this year, new shortages are popping up as the pandemic tests the global supply chain in ways Americans haven’t had to worry much about before.
“Your furniture salesperson isn’t a liar,” said John Pinion, president of the International Home Furnishings Representatives Association. “We’re dealing with new challenges every second trying to get product to you.”
Pinion, who lives in Austin, posted a 34-second video on LinkedIn that illustrates one link in the chain that’s making promises hard to keep.
Taken from a beach in Los Angeles, a panoramic view shows one cargo ship after another floating in place, each holding as many as 20,000 20-foot shipping containers of parts, hardware and finished goods. A lot of it has already been purchased by consumers.
“We’re seeing as many as 20 to 40 vessels at the Port of Los Angeles waiting to be unloaded,” said Kimberly Duca, vice president of business development for Noatum Logistics.
COVID-19 outbreaks at ports have caused labor shortages, she said. “It’s tough to find new hires, then they may not be as efficient as the regular staff.”
Social distancing is keeping people in specific work groups so that one group can be quarantined instead of the whole port when there’s an outbreak, but there are still delays, said Duca, who works in the international freight forwarding company’s Houston office.
And the trucks set up to carry goods inland won’t just wait around, so they end up leaving without a load and shifting to other work.
The delays aren’t all COVID-19-related, she said. There were tariff exclusions on many products such as oil and gas machinery that were set to expire Dec. 31, and the U.S. industry loaded up.
Layer on Chinese New Year, which started Friday, and when factories traditionally close for two weeks, and a new kink emerges. Factories hurried to get orders out, and the ports in Asia are packed. Some have temporarily stopped accepting containers for ships heading to U.S. ports, according to reports this past week.
Experts who study the global supply chain said the disruption is so severe that issues will spill into 2022 and maybe even later for some products. Peloton, which operates its customer service operation in Plano, paid $47.4 million to buy one of its major manufacturers in Taiwan in October to try to reverse its supply issues, but it’s still disappointing customers with delivery schedules.
To understand today’s shortages, back up to the start of the pandemic in March and April, Duca said, when retailers were forced to temporarily close and consumers limited their shopping to groceries.
Retailers pulled back on orders, not knowing what was ahead, Duca said. “Steamships were pulled out to correspond with the drop in demand. Then it took a while to bring them back online.”
Then stimulus checks and the realization that the stay-at-home lifestyle was indefinite unleashed a spending surge, especially on home goods and toys. Soon it was time to order for Christmas.
January through March is usually a slow period for shipments, but not this year.
Retailers and manufacturers have ramped up their orders, and rates for ocean freight have skyrocketed. A container that may have cost $1,000 to $2,000 to ship from Asia to the West Coast pre-pandemic is now $8,000 to $10,000, Duca said.
The reasons we’re still seeing consumer goods shortages are plenty, and they’re not the same across different industries.
The solutions for retailers trying to stabilize inventories in the coming months won’t be uniform — and may require patience from an American public more accustomed to the near-instant gratification of pre-pandemic shopping, said University of Texas at Dallas professor of operations management David Widdifield.
“We’ve started to adapt to the reality that our products may not have the availability levels that we’ve had,” he said. “There’s an opportunity for commerce here to under-promise and over-deliver.”
Here are the nuances behind a few of the shortages we’re seeing.
Computer chip crunch hits car buyers
A global shortage of semiconductor chips, driven by limited supply and skyrocketing demand, is hitting not only the electronics industry but automakers as well.
As cars have evolved to include more electronic features, they’ve relied on more semiconductor chips to produce.
Demand for new vehicles has bounced back quickly from pandemic lows in early 2020, and the ongoing shortage could trickle down to consumers. Experts have said it could become more difficult for car buyers to find specific models or colors.
Automakers with operations in Texas, including General Motors and Toyota, are responding by cutting back production of some vehicles.
Three North American GM plants have been shuttered due to the shortage, but CEO Mary Barra has said it won’t affect the company’s truck production, a good portion of which is handled at its assembly plant in Arlington. That facility remains at full production.
Meanwhile, Toyota has slowed production of its Tundra trucks at a plant near San Antonio.
Ford, Fiat Chrysler and Nissan have also said in the past month that they’ll cut production due to the shortage.
Market research firm IHS Markit estimates the shortage could have an effect on vehicle production through the third quarter of the year, describing it as a “famine.”
Where can I get a PS5?
2020 was the biggest year for video game hardware sales in a decade, according to a recent NPD Group report. But a combination of insatiable demand and supply chain issues, similar to what automakers are seeing, have limited the availability of new video game consoles, including the Xbox Series X and Playstation 5.
Both Sony and Microsoft released their next-generation game consoles in late 2020. To the dismay of fans, they sold out almost instantly.
Two months later, consumers are still scrambling to get their hands on the consoles, which can sell out online in a matter of seconds after new stock is posted.
The boom in consumer electronics sales as more people stayed home during the pandemic is partially to blame, but Sony and Microsoft recently said they’re both struggling with shortages of computing hardware as well.
Earlier this month, Sony said the shortage of new consoles could get worse before it gets better and may continue through 2021.
Grapevine-based video game retailer GameStop hasn’t had the PS5 in stock since Jan. 7, according to one site that tracks availability. The console is, however, available to purchase for more than 200% higher than the retail cost on sites like Ebay where resellers who quickly buy up supply are making bank — to the frustration of video gaming fans everywhere.
Richardson Bike Mart owner Woody Smith has bikes in his four local stores because he's broadened the brands he carries and is placing 10 times the orders he did before the pandemic. That hasn't eliminated waiting lists for the most popular models, but it has made some customers happy who aren't set on a certain bike. (Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)
The urge to get outside
Waiting lists to purchase popular Trek bikes at local shops have hundreds of names on them, and some models can take three to eight months to arrive, even at the company’s branded stores.
Demand for outdoor exercise blossomed during the pandemic and hasn’t waned. From August through December, the number of fishing licenses was up 26.6% in Texas, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. High-end fishing rods and reels and stand-up paddleboards are still in short supply at Cabela’s and Scheels stores.
Bike racks were almost empty a couple of weeks before Christmas at Scheels, a 331,000-square-foot sporting goods store in The Colony's Grandscape shopping district. Scheels is one of the largest sellers of the Trek brand. (Vernon Bryant / Staff Photographer)
“The supply chain is broken, and it’s going to take some time to get it back together,” said Ken “Woody” Smith, who owns Richardson Bike Mart, which operates four stores.
Smith, who has been in the retail bike business for more than 30 years, said to keep his stores stocked, he has 11,000 bikes on order at any given time and has varied his suppliers. Pre-pandemic, he would have 1,000 bikes on order at a time. His customer wait list has more than 300 requests, down from 600 earlier in the pandemic. Before COVID, the wait list might be 30 or 40 names.
“I’d rather gamble on the high side,” Smith said. Before the pandemic, he ordered new bikes every Monday, and by Thursday or Friday, 90% to 100% of the shipment would arrive.
One of the most popular brands, Trek, assembles bikes in Wisconsin, but the parts come from Asia, Smith said, and that’s true with all brands.
Smith said his average adult bike sale has inched up quickly, from just under $500 to more than $700, as shoppers discover different brands in the store.
“At Christmas, we had more bikes than Walmart. Scheels is the No. 1 Trek dealer in the country. But I can be more nimble with four stores and switch brands,” Smith said. “That’s what saved our business.”
Furniture and appliances have been hit by both high demand from consumers and backups in the supply chain.
If you like that couch, buy it
Furniture retailers are encouraging shoppers to first shop in-stock products because of unpredictable delivery dates. That’s the message at Nebraska Furniture Mart, which says that because of the COVID-19 crisis, “manufacturing delays with many of our vendor partners are causing inventory shortages and shipping delays.”
Dallas-based Sunnyland Furniture said business usually tapers off after Labor Day, but demand is still high. The retailer’s three delivery trucks are all out on some days, even in January.
The company has aggressively made purchases to keep its Dallas and Frisco stores stocked. But orders are behind, and the reasons are unique.
A shortage of gray thread, a specific type that won’t fade on the patio, prevented one supplier from completing an order, said Brad Schweig, vice president at family-owned and -operated Sunnyland. The retailer’s hammock supplier is waiting for steel parts, and another furniture maker is waiting for a plastic part, he said.
Other suppliers are slower filling orders because of social distancing in workrooms, said Schweig. “We’re glad they’re doing that, but if you have 15 people instead of 30 working at a time, that slows it down.”
Pinion, of the home furnishings association, said he tells people if they see something they like and can take it home, do it. The U.S. only makes 3% of furniture sold here, he said.
“It’s frustrating, because prior to COVID, we were all living in an Amazon culture,” Pinion said. “You wanted a sofa? You had five sources that could deliver it to you.”
Grocery aisles restocked
Grocery aisles are pretty much back to normal after consumers stripped shelves of items last spring, not knowing what life had in store.
Since then, retailers have restocked warehouses at higher levels than before, and manufacturers have shifted production to make more of the items that were most in demand. There was plenty of toilet paper and Clorox wipes on the shelves during a recent trip to a Walmart and a Kroger in Dallas.
But some products are still out of stock. Formula 409 all-purpose cleaner is one of those.
When the pandemic began, Clorox, which makes 409, prioritized production of disinfectants that had earned the EPA kill claim against the virus that causes COVID-19, as well as products that allowed the company to maximize production, said Molly Steinkrauss, a spokeswoman for Clorox.
The company focused production on Clorox disinfecting bleach and Pine-Sol original multisurface cleaner. Those items are on store shelves, and the company is making and distributing wipes at a record rate of 1.5 million canisters a day starting this month.
“We are just now ramping back up production of our Formula 409 cleaners and expect to catch up with demand later this year,” Steinkrauss said.
Her advice to customers: Sign up for online retailers’ in-stock alerts and ask store managers what days their items are typically delivered.
Ammunition is ‘hell to find’
A confluence of political turmoil, pandemic hoarding and manufacturing problems has made firearm ammunition tough to find.
There are shortages of rifle, shotgun and pistol ammo at some of the bigger stores such as Bass Pro Shops and Academy Sports. Some stores have dialed back on firearms and ammunition sales under political pressure at the same time that FBI statistics indicate a record number of gun sales in 2020.
“This is a pandemic-driven shortage, and I believe it will last for at least another four-plus years,” said Matthew Campbell, president of manufacturer Precision Ammunition in Mineral Wells.
Precision is facing its own supply problems getting components to make bullets and shells because of bankruptcies by suppliers. Bullet components that are still available have gone up in price, he said. Large manufacturers are selling record amounts of ammunition and therefore don’t have excess components such as primers to sell to small ammunition makers.
In 2020, the FBI processed 39.7 million background checks for firearm purchases, a 25% increase over the next-highest on record in 2019. The FBI did more than 4.1 million background checks last month, a record for any month.
Historically, firearm and ammunition sales go up in years when Democrats take the White House or Congress and consumers are worried about new firearm restrictions. But ammunition buyers were out in force early in the pandemic, stocking up on bullets just as other consumers bought toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
At the Texas Legends Gun Range in Allen, training and education director Greg Taggart said demand is high for ammunition right now.
“We have ammo,” Taggart said. “It’s hell to find and we are paying our distributors $35, $40 to $50 per 50-round 9-millimeter box that last March we retailed at $14.”
Jason Vanderbrink, CEO of ammunition manufacturer Federal, CCI, Speer and Remington, has posted a series of videos on YouTube trying to convince consumers that it’s not holding back supplies for political reasons.
“Rest assured, we made a lot more hunting ammo in 2020 than we did any year of the history of our company,” Vanderbrink said in the video.
Mac and cheese, please
The global pandemic could have been disastrous for a Plano-based cheese distributor as eateries closed and its regular exports out of Houston to Central and South America dried up.
But Wisconsin’s Finest had another product it had just started making a few months before the crisis started: boxed organic macaroni and cheese.
The company was encouraged to get into the mac and cheese business because there were few organic alternatives to dominant brand Annie’s and young families were seeking organic.
It was already selling mac and cheese to Northeastern regional grocers Stop & Shop and Giant. Since then, Wisconsin’s Finest boxed pasta, which comes in four flavors and shapes, has added retail customers B.J.’s Wholesale Club, Walgreens and Walmart.
Last spring and summer, the convenience food was booming as a stay-at-home staple for families faced with cooking all day. “There’s no way Americans can be buying that much mac and cheese. It was crazy,” said Logan Williams, vice president of sales at Wisconsin’s Finest.
At the same time, the family-owned and -operated company, which sells cheddar, mozzarella and pepper jack cheese in 40-pound blocks to food service operations, was able to shift into slices, shredded packages and smaller blocks for supermarket delis.
Grocers were the retail winners of the pandemic, and being able to shift the business to retail saved the company, Williams said. “If we had just been supplying the food service business, we would have been in real trouble.”