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The race is on to save Christmas as retailers fight the supply chain crunch

An inflatable snowman and candy canes are part of the decorations that adorn houses in Brooklyn's Dyker Heights neighborhood on Dec. 22, 2020 in New York. A shopping surge by households this year has snarled up global supply chains, and now the race is on to get products on shelves in time for Christmas.
An inflatable snowman and candy canes are part of the decorations that adorn houses in Brooklyn's Dyker Heights neighborhood on Dec. 22, 2020 in New York. A shopping surge by households this year has snarled up global supply chains, and now the race is on to get products on shelves in time for Christmas.

The busy Christmas shopping season is almost here. Unfortunately, a lot of holiday merchandise is tied up in traffic, and Bonnie Ross is starting to sweat.

"We're at the point where if you don't ship now, it's not going," says Ross, sales manager for the California-based clothing company Nothin' But Net. "The buyers are saying, 'If it's not here, I can't take it.'"

For months now, Ross has been anxiously tracking the progress of her company's Christmas clothing orders from factories in Asia to cargo terminals on the West Coast.

"First, I couldn't get the containers to get them out of China," Ross recalls. "Then I couldn't get them on a boat. Now they finally get here, they're sitting at the port for God knows how long, and now I can't have a truck to pick it up because there's no trucks."

A big part of what's driving this traffic jam is booming demand. Americans are buying more stuff than ever before — 26 million import containers this year according to an estimate from the National Retail Federation.

Already stretched supply chains now face another key test with Christmas fast approaching. And for every cargo container stacked on a dock or stuck in a rail-yard, there's a nervous importer eying the calendar, wondering if the stuff they've ordered will arrive before it's too late.

Logistics 101

For Ross, it's proven to be quite a lesson in logistics.

"I got a whole new education," she says. "Do you know what a chassis is?"

Chassis, as Ross learned the hard way, are the trailers that shipping containers rest on when pulled by a truck.

Many chassis are out of commission right now. They're stuck holding empty containers, because ports are so crowded with cargo, they're not letting trucks drop many empties off.

A shipping container is moved along the Delaware River in Philadelphia on Sept. 29. With Christmas fast approaching, businesses of all kinds are rushing to get their products onto shelves in time for the holidays.
Matt Rourke / AP
A shipping container is moved along the Delaware River in Philadelphia on Sept. 29. With Christmas fast approaching, businesses of all kinds are rushing to get their products onto shelves in time for the holidays.

The traffic jam hasn't eased in recent weeks, despite efforts by the Biden administration to extend ports' working hours around the clock.

"I have drivers who are frustrated right now that we can't move more containers," says Peter Grimm, managing partner of TK Transport Services in Compton, Calif. "We do what's necessary to move cargo, because if we don't, we don't eat."

Further inland, trucking companies say they're suffering from a shortage of drivers — a perennial complaint that's only grown louder during the pandemic.

'It's just a disaster'

And the prospect of missing out on the lucrative Christmas season is starting to boil over.

Yedi Houseware Appliances, for example, imports air fryers and pressure cookers from Asia. Last year, it sold 50,000 small appliances through a retailer's Black Friday promotion.

Company president Bobby Djavaheri was hoping for a similar blowout with the retailer this month, but he's been foiled by shipping delays.

"Now they're going to have to delete their promotion because the goods aren't going to get there in time," Djavaheri says. "Talking about over a million dollars worth of goods. And it's just a disaster."

As if dockside delays weren't bad enough, one of Djavaheri's containers actually went overboard — one of dozens that toppled off a cargo ship in rough seas off the coast of British Columbia last month, as the ship was waiting to get into a crowded port.

"That's all I needed," Djavaheri says. "My dad is 88 years old. He's been doing this for 50-plus years. He can't even fathom what's going on. That's how crazy it is. "

Bobby Djavaheri, president of Yeti Houseware Appliances, poses with his father, Yedidia, at the Chicago Houseware Show. Shipping delays have jeopardized a Black Friday promotion in which they hoped to sell more than $1 million worth of air fryers.
/ Courtesy of Bobby Djavaheri
Bobby Djavaheri, president of Yedi Houseware Appliances, poses with his father, Yedidia, at the Chicago Houseware Show. Shipping delays have jeopardized a Black Friday promotion in which they hoped to sell more than $1 million worth of air fryers.

Stocking up early

Still, while some of that merchandise currently stuck at ports may not reach its destination by Christmas, there's still hope customers won't face row after row of empty store shelves.

Many retailers began stocking up early in anticipation of a busy season, including Stephenson's, a clothing store in Elkhart, Ind., that just celebrated its 90th anniversary.

"Our store started in the Great Depression in 1931, so I always say we were built to last," says store owner Danny Reynolds. "But this has all been different."

Danny Reynolds in his clothing store, Stephenson's, in Elkhart, Indiana. Reynolds is well stocked for Christmas, despite erratic deliveries this year.
/ Courtesy of Danny Reynolds
Danny Reynolds in his clothing store, Stephenson's, in Elkhart, Indiana. Reynolds is well stocked for Christmas, despite erratic deliveries this year.

Reynolds says clothing deliveries this year have been erratic. Merchandise he expected to get in mid-summer suddenly showed up in October. Luckily, it wasn't swim suits, and he's not sending anything back.

Now, Reynolds' store is well-stocked for the holidays. And he thinks customers will be eager to buy.

"From an inventory standpoint, we're ready," he says. "If they don't come, Boy, am I going to have a big clearance sale early next year."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 11, 2021 at 12:00 AM EST
An earlier version of this story misstated the name of Yedi Houseware Appliances as Yeti Houseware Appliances.