Global supply chain woes will impact Whatcom County shopping

Table of Contents Strategies for holiday shoppingWhat will shopping be like this year?Follow more of

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People shop for books at Village Books on Thursday, Oct. 14, in Fairhaven. Sarah Hutton, co-owner at Village Books, said they have about 80% of the inventory for Christmas gifts, but the things they haven’t received are back-ordered because of production issues.

The Bellingham Herald

Shopping early for the holiday season is generally a good rule of thumb, but it may be more important this year as global supply breakdowns cause delays for Whatcom County retailers.

Retailers interviewed for this article report that while they already have most of their holiday inventory — around 60% to 80% in some cases — getting those final few orders as well as replenishing things that sell out will be challenging this year.

Bellingham residents can regularly look out on the bay to see one issue: This summer and fall there has usually been one or two huge container ships waiting for a chance to unload goods from Asia and Mexico at Seattle area ports. The COVID-19 pandemic has also done a number in other parts of the supply chain, including the manufacturing sector.

According to an article in Business Insider, the disruptions are expected to get worse before it gets better because there is no clear solution on working out all the kinks in the supply chain system. One of the weakest links, according to the article, is “an alarming shortage of truck drivers” that has left ports swamped with shipping containers.

Bre Green, co-owner of the Greenhouse in downtown Bellingham, has seen firsthand how disruptions at the start of the global chain has a cascading effect that works its way down to retail stores. Most of the furniture in her store is made in America or in Canada, but one little glitch in production can prevent her from receiving that key piece of furniture.

“Something might be 98% ready to go, but if a little component from overseas is delayed, it holds everything up,” Green said.

Even items as commonplace as books or gift wrap are seeing delays heading into the season. Sarah Hutton, co-owner at Village Books, said they have about 80% of the inventory for Christmas gifts, but the things they haven’t received are back-ordered because of production issues. Earlier this month NPR reported that a shortage of cardboard and paper are part of the problem in the industry.

Hutton said they’ve noticed the books most likely to be delayed are popular titles that are not new, while some new releases are being pushed to a later date.

While appliance retailer Judd & Black has been able to land a selection of products for the holiday season, laundry machines and refrigerators have been the most challenging to track down, said Taylor Long, operations manager for the company.

Long said they’ve been experiencing the same issue that Green has at the Greenhouse, which is an appliance missing a key component, leading to delays.

“Despite our close ties with the world’s largest appliance manufacturers, we are vying against dealers around the world to try and secure what limited product is actually available,” said Long in an email.

1Village Books_Sterling_10.14.21.jpg
While the pandemic has created shortages and delays, it’s also created more choices for consumers in some industries. At Village Books in Fairhaven, co-owner Sarah Hutton said they have many more new book titles than they’ve normally seen for this time of year. Warren Sterling The Bellingham Herald

Strategies for holiday shopping

With the holiday shopping season nearly here, retailers are advising customers that if they see something they know they want, it’s better to buy now because it might not be around closer to the holidays.

Hutton said they’ve already seen customers with that idea in mind and are buying books as gifts in early October.

It’s not hopeless for the ardent last-minute shopper, however. Many products sitting in container ships or stuck at the manufacturing plant will probably still arrive before Christmas, it just might get here late in the season and retailers will be eager to quickly sell them after they arrive.

“My advice is to check back often,” said Green, who said it’s unknown what day of the week a truck will arrive with more products at her store.

Long said cooking appliances see the biggest spike in sales during the holidays, as consumers are motivated to upgrade them for the Thanksgiving and Christmas meals. Long agrees that purchasing early when a customer spots a product is important, not just because it might not be there later but because installation appointments quickly book up.

“Every year we get the same question, will it be installed in time for the holidays? This question is not being asked yet, but it should be. As November rapidly approaches, it will be less and less likely that consumers will be able to find something in time,” Long said.

What will shopping be like this year?

Despite the global supply chain issues, some retailers seem fairly optimistic that it will be a busy shopping season.

Foot traffic is expected to be stronger than a year ago, when pandemic restrictions tightened as Whatcom County dealt with a winter surge in cases. While the infection rate remains high heading into the holiday season, having much of the community vaccinated is expected to prevent restrictions like reduced capacity or complete closures of places such as restaurants and bars.

Online shopping is also expected to remain popular, both with local retailers and national websites. Green expects her company’s website to be active, but the store is also expecting more foot traffic because her products tend to be something consumers want to physically see and touch before purchasing.

While the pandemic has created shortages and delays, it’s also created more choices for consumers in some industries. At Village Books, Hutton said they have many more new book titles than they’ve normally seen for this time of year.

Like the movie business, a lot of authors held off on releasing books during the early stages of the pandemic. The surge in new titles is across the board, including fiction, mystery and history categories, she said.

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Dave Gallagher has covered the Whatcom County business community since 1998. Retail, real estate, jobs and port redevelopment are among the topics he covers.


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