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Susan Tompor: How to find gifts -- and joy -- if a toy shortage hits during the holidays

Susan Tompor, Detroit Free Press on

Published in Home and Consumer News

The holiday shopping frenzy has always been driven by FOMO. But this year, the fear of missing out is colliding smack dab into the fear of running out.

The ongoing message we're hearing a month before Thanksgiving is buy now before it's too late. A QVC host in mid-October proclaimed that products will be sparse across the board for all retailers. Really? Anyone walk into a big box store or mall lately?

A Fox News headline declared that Christmas gifts are on the line. Really? Just a bunch of nothing for everyone this holiday?

Like last year? Wait, plenty of consumers ordered gifts online last year when many didn't go into the malls before vaccines were readily available during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thanks for this year's warning folks, but I'm good.

The global supply chain logjam is, no doubt, a serious obstacle to economic growth if we don't see more relief ahead.

But shoppers can't afford to be held hostage to added layers of holiday marketing hype. And trust me, we're going to see plenty of it.

As a shopper, I've survived all sorts of holidays where hot items have been in short supply — everything from Cabbage Patch dolls in the 1980s to the Nintendo Wii in 2006.

Will some toys be in short supply? No doubt. A reason to panic? Highly doubtful.

Jason Miller told me that he took his 5-year-old daughter for a flu shot recently at Target. Part of the deal was that she'd get to pick out a toy that day. She went straight for the Barbies.

"There were no issues with toy shortages," said Miller, who keeps a close eye on inventories as an associate professor of logistics in the department of supply chain management at Michigan State University's Eli Broad College of Business.

Miller said he did not notice a substantial price increase for the dolls, either, which is consistent with Bureau of Labor Statistics data that indicates that the import price index of toys has stayed relatively constant over the past year.

Clearly, we will continue to see glitches along the way this holiday season when it comes to unloading toys and other products at the ports and getting those goods on trucks and then stocking items on store shelves. But a crisis? Miller isn't forecasting one.

Part of the problem, Miller said, is that there are fewer long-distance truck drivers than before COVID, which makes it difficult to handle additional import volume.

On top of that, railroads are currently hauling fewer containers off cargo ships than last year. Trucks ultimately will need to make up that shortfall as cargo ships are unloaded and that's going to stretch the trucking system further.

But Miller said there aren't signs that we're heading into crisis levels in trucking based on leading indicators, such as the costs associated with freight that is hauled and priced on a spot basis.

Are consumers now ready to spend?

This year, retailers are more worried about supply chain issues because it appears that holiday festivities are making a comeback.

Consumer optimism is high with many shoppers reporting they are back to work, have money in their wallets, and are ready to spend in-store and online, according to the findings of the September KPMG consumer pulse survey.

The KPMG report noted: "More than half (55%) report their household income has returned to pre-COVID-19 levels. An additional 12% said their income has surpassed those levels."

How should shoppers handle supply chain challenges? Take a deep breath, start shopping early, cut corners were you can and stick to a budget. And the best way to keep costs low is not to panic. It also does not hurt to have a back up plan.

Ways to keep your Yule cool

Here are some strategies to consider for holiday shopping:

Gift closet. If you shop year round, take a look to see what gifts you've got in stock in your own personal inventory. No need to worry about a supply chain crisis if you've got several gifts tucked in a closet already.

 

Shopping outside of the box. Make no mistake, stores may look different than they did before the pandemic. I've noticed, for example, a lot more floor space in some stores lately, including Kohl's in metro Detroit. The racks often aren't jammed on top of one another in some areas.

While that might be a sign of tight inventories or perhaps remodeling, it's also a welcome sight if you'd like to practice a little social distancing.

I have yet to see any truly empty shelves but I imagine that some might crop up here and there. I noticed some sparse supply when it came to Halloween merchandise in some stores, such as Michael's, in mid-October.

If you normally wait until later in December to buy holiday decorations, for example, you need to shop a little earlier this year for seasonal items.

Comparison shop online. Some retailers may offer more seasonal merchandise via their online platforms instead of stocking the shelves.

I noticed this trend when it came to a so-called backpack shortage during the back-to-school season. While the shelves were completely cleared out of backpacks in the store at a local Target shortly before the start of school, you could find a fairly decent selection online.

This year, about 60% of holiday shopping is expected to be done online, up from 52% last year, according to the survey by KPMG.

Get to know the sales team. When looking for hard to find items, I've asked clerks when a store is likely to get its shipments.

The selection of sizes and colors for sweaters, for example, can be skimpy one week but then well stocked the next. It helps to track delivery schedules, if possible.

Give from the heart. It is OK to try out a new gift giving idea if you fear that you won't find what you want.

Many years ago, my sister Linda was pregnant and unable to shop like the true shopping queen she was then. She gave me a great gift, though, by taking the time to write out a long list of favorite recipes, including family treasures, and putting those recipes together in a green notebook.

Unload an heirloom. There's nothing wrong with giving away a few family ornaments or other items — along with perhaps a gift card or some cash — to stay on track.

Experiences. Give the gift of the joy of being together. Maybe promise to bring over pizza on a Friday night or two in 2022. Or give a membership to a museum or local zoo.

Give good intentions. Going back to Christmas 2006, Santa somehow didn't bring the new much-in-demand, little-in-supply, Nintendo Wii system to our house.

Instead, one of the presents was a Wii game for a system we don't have yet. Santa left a note suggesting that the parents would need to help out on this one.

Sure, the strategy might seem a bit idiotic. Why would anyone give a child a game that he or she couldn't use? What was Santa thinking?

Yet was my 8-year-old son angry with Santa? No, he had his game plan. By Christmas dinner, my son Matthew had created the Wii fund.

And I soon offered to help out and hand over $5 for the Wii fund each time we passed up a toy at Target or somewhere else on a shopping trip. We bought time to find the much in demand game console and saved money for a big ticket item that was then priced around $250. He got that Wii for his birthday a few months later.

My son even wrote a letter to Santa to thank him for what he got and he asked him for finding four missing action figures in our house. (Secretly, we felt that Santa might have more luck finding the Wii.)

TV pundits will tell you that children will never understand why a gift might not arrive this holiday season — or how pandemic-related stimulus ending up fueling demand and throwing the supply chain out of whack.

But count me among the many who will tell you, it all works out.

Find the joy in the holidays — and block out those who will tell you that everything's in short supply.

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