Pandemic Holiday Season Supply Chain Woes Cause Delays

First published in the Nov. 12 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.

While working on this column, I thought of a parody in the tune of “My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean”:
My presents lie over the ocean.
My toy train lies over the sea.
My computer chips lie over the ocean.
Oh, bring back my Christmas to me.

The term “supply chain” has become as notorious as that of “long COVID.” The supply chain — which affects manufacturing as much as it does restocking our shelves — has been interrupted by shipping delays, while long COVID describes the persistence of certain COVID-19 symptoms after an infection has passed.
Both are issues I — and all of you — want to avoid, but it seems the supply chain is catching up with plans for Christmas shopping this year.
Chris Meeske, owner of Mission Wines, said he feels like the problems around the country and around the world are suddenly at his doorstep. There’s a bottle shortage and labor problems in France, and he can’t get the wooden gift crates that he’s been using from Napa because they keep delaying delivery dates.
“These problems are multiplying and starting to come to a boil,” Meeske said. “Everything’s happening now. Back-up after back-up after back-up.”
Customers are disappointed that he hasn’t had Dom Perignon for six months because of the issues in France. Meeske is known for his knowledge of the wines, but he acknowledges that customers are disappointed when they can’t get their favorites — especially during the holiday season at his store on Mission Street.
“We’ve never had these kind of problems,” Meeske said, “and we have to deal with inflation, labor shortages, getting wines off of boats and to the businesses. Small businesses are taking a beating.”
Many Americans looked to Amazon or other big box delivery services. The Washington Post recently reported these big businesses spend millions of dollars to charter their own ships and planes while the pandemic caused closure of smaller stores, or forced them to use curbside pick-ups.
The Post, in an article on Nov. 7, cited a Federal Reserve study reporting an estimated 800,000 small businesses closed permanently in the first year of the pandemic, roughly 30% more than is typical.
The South Pasadena Chamber of Commerce reported that many of the small businesses hung on through the worst of the pandemic.
The small merchants I talked to around town have advice for all of us: “If you see something, buy it now. Don’t think about it. It may not be there … when you return.”
“It used to be that people would see something and say, ‘I’ll think about it,’” said David Plenn, owner of the Dinosaur Farm toy store on Mission Street. “We can’t guarantee that it’s going to be there the next time you come in. Things are a lot less predictable this year.”
Things are not only unpredictable for customers. They are especially unpredictable for the merchants. Plenn said that he would order $5,000 worth of toys, and perhaps $1,500 would come into the store.
The rest might be on a ship somewhere. Shoppers should expect products to come in when they come in.
“We definitely have a problem,” Plenn said. “Some companies have sent us word that they are sorry, but they just can’t get the orders out to us. Some of the things may end up coming in January and I’ll just have to put them away.”
These long delays, along with the higher wage demands by workers and higher energy prices, likely mean higher costs for products.
“We are trying to take less markup to avoid sticker shock, the principle being that you sell more for less profit” per item, Plenn said.
Plenn said that he doesn’t see any blockbuster toys like the “Tickle Me Elmos” of Christmas past. His store often offers the unusual treasures sometimes overlooked in bigger stores. Right now, he’s guessing that “Calico Critters” will continue to be a big seller. They come in families — they can be animals or cars — and they have been popular so far this year.
Right up the block, Jasa Cocke, owner of the gift store Marz on Mission Street, is facing the same situation. She’s already got two tables’ worth of ornaments on display and a window full of Christmas cheer. But she, too, says to buy now or beware.
Most of the ornaments she has on display are from Mexico. She’s still waiting on a lot of her other merchandise.
“I’ll be getting ornaments through December,” Cocke said. “About a third of my ornaments are in now, and I’m still waiting for about 75% of my large decorations. They are still all overseas or on boats. The big stuff is from India, Thailand and China.”
So, when you ask, “How much are those large red reindeer in the window?” you better be ready to buy if you are contemplating a red reindeer in your living room this holiday season.
“I’m not panicked. It is what it is,” Cocke said. “I have great stuff. I can’t be worried about what I don’t have. Things will continue to trickle in.”
Meanwhile, two attractive faux- wood reindeer heads sold earlier in the day, and while I was there, the last two in the store went out the door.
Cocke thinks that as the pandemic continued, people began to realize what they might be about to lose, and some of them stopped ordering as much online.
“Some of the sentiments I heard moved me to tears,” Cocke said. “[Customers] told me, ‘Please don’t close.’ They told me they were thinking twice about ordering from Amazon. They really began to think about what would happen if small businesses closed.
“A woman knocked on my door when everything was shut down and we were doing curbside orders,” she continued, “and she asked what she could do to keep us in business.”