Holiday shopping on Amazon or elsewhere? Better start now

You haven’t stocked up on mini candy bars or dragged the fake tombstones out of

You haven’t stocked up on mini candy bars or dragged the fake tombstones out of your garage yet, but it’s time to start shopping for holiday gifts.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has impacted everything from education to cubicle culture, continues to wreak havoc on supply chains. And the anticipated disruption to the 2021 gift-buying season will make Tickle Me Elmogate seem like, um, child’s play.

Major retailers aren’t taking any chances because the holidays are always a vital part of their sales calendar. For some, today is the new Black Friday.

Amazon, for instance, announced “Black Friday-worthy deals” at around 3 a.m. ET on Monday.

“We’re excited to help customers get great holiday deals even earlier this year, including thousands of small business products,” Dave Clark, CEO of worldwide consumer, said in a written statement. “Customers can confidently shop early knowing they are receiving incredible deals starting today, letting them get a head start on their holiday to-do lists so they can truly enjoy the holiday season.”

Target also has made a bid for early gift-buying dollars. On Wednesday, the Minneapolis-based chain unveiled the dates of its Deal Days: October 10-12. Last year, they were scheduled for October 13-14.

“As we get closer to the holiday season, it’ll be exacerbated,” explains Nada Sanders, a supply chain professor at Northeastern University. “Retailers are suffering, because they’re desperately trying to figure out what is consumer demand, what is hot, and will they be more brick-and-mortar? That plays into how much I stock the shelves versus online. It’s a messy plate of spaghetti that will only get messier. Consumers say, ‘I want and I want’ . . . We’ve seen, pre-COVID, people getting in fights in Walmart for an item.”

Post-Thanksgiving traditionally marks when people get serious about gift buying, but that’s much too close to the big days. (In addition to supply-chain issues, don’t forget about the already-taxed and slowed-down U.S. Postal Service, which many people rely on to get presents where they need to be, especially during a period of time when in-person gift-giving and holiday celebrations are low.)

The massive congestion stems from cargo ships sitting off both coasts, a lack of labor to unload the ships and drive the trucks to warehouses, COVID-19 restrictions and time-consuming protocols, and shortages of aluminum and computer chips. While supply chains encounter disruptions all the time—from bad weather to a union strike—those often take only a few weeks or months before normal functioning returns. In this case, the interference is unprecedented and unrelenting and comes from both the supply and the demand side, according to Sanders.

“It’s a surprise that companies are surprised, because chains, over the years, have developed into these really perfect functioning networks that move products around the globe,” she says. “Virtually everything we consume, some parts were sourced somewhere.”

Consumers’ desire to spend was pent up and then exploded in the spring. A McKinsey report, released in August, for example, found that American spending in the second quarter jumped 20-30% to hit 4-7% above pre-pandemic levels. The management consulting firm credits vaccinations, the March stimulus checks, the economy re-opening, and an infusion of optimism among Americans after a year of restrictions and fear.

Sanders forecasts that the current supply-chain issues will be resolved by next summer. Some holiday gifts ordered now might not be available until March. Her 2021 shopping tip? Give cash or gift cards this year.

“There’s a very good chance I’ll pay for this item and it’ll be delayed and delayed. Be patient and understand we’re in this very new era. Hopefully, it’ll pass,” she advises.

Heather Tallman usually starts tackling her gift list of 25 to 30 people the week before Thanksgiving, but this year, she’s almost completely done. The innovation partnership manager for American Dairy Association Indiana is making gift baskets, using lots of shelf-stable and local foods, such as jams and sauces; she’s bought much of that as well as the actual containers and nesting papers.

“I’d rather give myself a little bit of time to not stress about thinking and get my shopping done,” Tallman says. “Things are not as accessible because of supply chain.”

The 45-year-old Franklin, Indiana, resident explains that she was inspired to get a move on it after seeing local supermarkets and drugstores run out of basic things she’s needed during the pandemic, including bobby pins and antacids, and hearing people in the food business complain that they can’t package asparagus because their rubber bands are stuck on a cargo ship.

“It’s been a year of hearing this,” Tallman points out. “This time has forced us to look inward to what we can buy in our own zip codes . . . We may see people get really creative with gifting this year.”