A tangled supply chain means shipping delays. Do your holiday shopping now

Ronald D. White, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

"There's no certainty that if your child or the children in America are looking for a particular toy, that it will be around," Ed Desmond, an executive vice president at the Toy Association trade group, said at a news conference last week hosted by the Port of Los Angeles. "What we might see is a lack of a variety."

Stuck at home and flush with stimulus payments, U.S. consumers began spending with enthusiasm last year and haven't stopped. There were plenty of shipping nightmares last holiday season, and experts fear that will repeat this year.

In June, the National Retail Federation bumped up its estimate for 2021 retail sales, predicting growth of 10.5% to 13.5%, to more than $4.44 trillion, in 2021. That was substantially higher than the 6.5% to 8.2% growth that the trade group predicted in February.

Even the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which make up the fastest seaport complex in the U.S. and move more cargo in a month than many ports handle all year, can't work fast enough. The neighboring ports, which last year handled nearly a third of U.S. imported products, are moving record numbers of steel cargo containers, most from China and other Asian countries.

"We're getting into the full peak season," said Gene Seroka, executive director of the nation's largest seaport, the Port of Los Angeles. "Every node of this supply chain is maxed out."

A record 89 cargo ships were anchored or drifting offshore last Thursday afternoon, waiting to enter the L.A. and Long Beach ports to be unloaded, according to the Marine Exchange Vessel Traffic Service.


Seroka described cargo containers piled up on the docks by the thousands, waiting for a ride on the short railroad line within the ports that takes the steel boxes to their next trip by transcontinental rail. Others are driven by trucks to warehouses before they head to retailer shelves.

But railroads also are reporting backlogs, which add to product delays, and trucking companies say they don't have enough drivers. Warehouses and retailers also complain that they can't get enough workers.

Some items are slower to get into the transportation network because the pandemic has disrupted operations at some Asian factories and seaports. In June, a COVID-19 outbreak shut part of the Yantian port in China, one of the world's busiest. It has since reopened.

And when the items get to the docks, there aren't enough cargo ships or containers because companies mothballed ships last year to save money early in the pandemic lockdown when consumers weren't spending, said Keith Jelinek, managing director at the global consulting firm Berkeley Research Group in Emeryville, Calif.


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