With Ports Clogged, Some Retailers Are Looking for Alternative Supply Chains

“The Wall Street Journal reports that Walmart, Target, Costco, and Home Depot are among the major retailers to adopt the “if you want something done right, do it yourself” approach to importing goods. Worker shortages and COVID-19 protocols have slowed trans-Pacific shipping considerably—it now takes about 80 days to transport items from Asia to the U.S., about twice as long as it did before the pandemic, the Journal reports.”

“many of the bottlenecks are domestic issues. For example, major ports in Europe and Asia operate around the clock, but American ports run at about 60 percent capacity because they close at night and on Sundays. Even when dozens of ships are waiting to be unloaded, inflexible union rules that govern dockworkers’ and truckers’ hours make it difficult to meet swelling demand.

By chartering smaller, private ships to carry their goods, retailers like Walmart are hoping to bypass the backlogs by landing at smaller ports up and down the east coast. That will cost more money—and those costs will be passed onto consumers—but that’s better than running out of inventory during the Christmas rush. Home Depot, for example, is relying on chartered ships to deliver only a small percentage of its overall inventory with a focus on high-demand items like plumbing supplies, power tools, holiday decor, and heaters, the Journal reports.

Getting goods onshore is only half the battle. There are plenty of other bottlenecks to be navigated, like a 25-mile freight train backup that occurred at a major shipping facility outside Chicago earlier this year. At the port in Savannah, Georgia, The New York Times reports that workers are “running out of places to put things” as they unload ships, snarling both ground- and sea-based transportation.”

“”The coronavirus pandemic has snarled global supply chains in several ways. Pandemic checks sent hundreds of billions of dollars to cabin-fevered Americans during a fallow period in the service sector. A lot of that cash has flowed to hard goods, especially home goods such as furniture and home-improvement materials. Many of these materials have to be imported from or travel through East Asia. But that region is dealing with the Delta variant, which has been considerably more deadly than previous iterations of the virus. Delta has caused several shutdowns at semiconductor factories across Asia just as demand for cars and electronics has started to pick up. As a result, these stops along the supply chain are slowing down at the very moment when Americans are demanding that they work in overdrive.””

Brexit didn’t create the UK’s fuel crisis. But it did make it worse.

“A combination of factors are driving (heh) the United Kingdom’s fuel — or petrol, as it’s called — shortage.

There were disruptions in fuel delivery, but Brits’ desperation to get gas appears to be causing the current crisis. People are rushing to fill up their tanks because they are worried there will be a big shortage, and that is straining the available supply. Florian Lücker, a senior lecturer in supply chain management at the Bayes Business School at City, University of London, compared it to the US’s great toilet paper stockpiling at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We have potential delays in supplies of fuel, among other things,” said Joanna Clifton-Sprigg, an assistant professor in economics at the University of Bath. “But it wouldn’t have been so bad if we all didn’t suddenly decide to go to a petrol station and fill the tanks to the full in every car we own.”

Why people were panic-buying gas in the first place is a bit more complicated. It’s not because of a national lack of fuel or gas. The UK has enough supply. It’s because there is a shortage of truck drivers able to deliver it.

This dearth of drivers isn’t exclusively a UK problem, it’s a global one, as the commercial trucking industry is struggling to recruit new workers for what is an extremely grueling job — long hours on the road, poor infrastructure to sleep or go to the bathroom.

“Being a truck driver is a really hard job,” said Dmitry Grozoubinski, director of the consultancy ExplainTrade. “It’s not hugely social. It’s not particularly high status. And in a lot of cases, it wasn’t supremely well paid.” The industry skews old, and many drivers are retiring, and though the UK is urging drivers with experience to come back, the often poor conditions and benefits are keeping people away. Add to that Covid-19 pandemic disruptions, which in the UK were particularly acute because the country suspended the testing process for truck drivers during lockdown.

The UK trucking industry is also dealing with something that exists nowhere else: Brexit. The United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union has exacerbated the crisis. Or more specifically, the version of Brexit pursued by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has.

There are some signs that the immediate fuel crisis may be waning soon, and the UK government has put soldiers on standby to haul fuel, as needed. Johnson’s government has proposed a plan to bring in 5,000 foreign truck drivers through short-term temporary visas in an attempt to make up the shortfall. But that might not be enough to fill labor gaps the UK is experiencing, and Brexit — and the ideas behind Brexit — may make it harder to find long-term fixes.”

“Pay for truck drivers isn’t always commensurate with the demanding nature of the work. The job became less appealing to Brits, and so like a lot of industries, companies sought to fill their ranks with workers from elsewhere. Wealthier countries in the EU have often relied on workers from poorer EU member states, and those workers could drive a truck in the UK or Germany and take home way more money than they’d be able to earn in, say, Poland.”

“the Brexit deal negotiated with the EU created more friction between the two partners. That, too, was a deliberate choice, and has added a layer of red tape to the trading relationship. It may make it less attractive to be a trucker in the UK than in the EU and more difficult for EU truckers to make up some of the shortfall the UK is experiencing. “What Brexit has meant is that the UK no longer enjoys the way that the EU pooled resources and moved stuff around in order to take the edge off those problems,” Grozoubinski said.”

“It has also been difficult to untangle the current rules from the anti-immigration sentiment that accompanied Brexit. People may not want to come to work in the UK where there is a sense they aren’t as welcome or won’t be able to settle in the UK. That unease may have prompted some truck drivers to leave.

But, according to Elizabeth de Jong, the policy director at Logistics UK, the pandemic just made everything worse, as people may have just gone back to their home countries during the lockdowns. “The thing that has changed because of the EU exit is that we would normally be able to just bring them back, and you can’t just bring them back or recruit more from the EU,” de Jong said. “We haven’t got that option anymore.””

The great book shortage of 2021, explained

“Right now, distribution networks across the world are massively congested.

“Los Angeles — which is a major port of entry for the United States — New York, and New Jersey are all pretty full up,” says O’Leary. “We’re hearing reports of delays of weeks for getting things cleared.”

“Containers are not moving out of ports and onto trains quickly enough,” explains Chris Tang, a UCLA business professor specializing in global supply chain management. “And on top of that, all of the warehouses in the Midwest are full. So everything is stuck.”

An increase in online shipping in part of what’s driving the congestion. Meanwhile, the complications of Brexit and the internet’s beloved container ship Ever Given — both of which dramatically disrupted global supply chains — certainly aren’t helping ports empty themselves out faster.

Even more pressing, however, is a shortage of truck drivers. There just aren’t enough trucks on the road to pick up as much stuff as we’re currently shipping around the world. “We’re talking tens of thousands fewer truck drivers than we need,” says O’Leary.

And as stuff sits in warehouses, waiting to be picked up by increasingly scarce truck drivers, the price of storage goes up, adding to overall shipping costs. “It used to be around $3,000 per container,” Tang says. “Now the price is closer to $20,000.” The skyrocketing costs mean that companies selling luxury goods will take more warehouse slots, since they can afford them, while lower-priced goods, like books, compete for what’s left.

Barnes & Noble CEO Daunt notes that books do have one big advantage over other goods when it comes to shipping: They’re durable. “The reality is that books are fantastic because they don’t really perish, so you’re able to print lots of them in advance,” he says. “They’re incredibly robust, so you can send them through the most basic of supply chain routes. They’re not strawberries or peaches or delicate things.”

But right now, even the most basic of supply chain routes are finding themselves overwhelmed.”

“One of the big underlying problems when it comes to printing and shipping books is the same labor shortage that’s currently roiling the rest of the country. There aren’t enough press operators to get books printed, and then there aren’t enough truck drivers to get them to bookstores. Wages have gone up, but there still aren’t enough people working.

“In the whole national workforce, you’ve got 8.4 million unemployed but 10.9 million open jobs,” says Baehr. “That’s a two and a half million-person shortage, period, and that’s across all buckets. The book industry is getting hit with that just as much as the paper industry is getting hit with that just as much as the transportation industry is getting hit with that. It all just compounds on itself. It’s just a rough spot right now for the book business.”

“Simply put, the working-age population in the US has stopped growing,” says Gad Levanon, founder of the Labor Market Institute. “And the working-age population without a BA is shrinking quite rapidly.” That’s a major issue for the industries we’re discussing here because in general, people with college degrees prefer not to work in warehouses, as truck drivers, or in printing presses.”