“Panic Buying” NYC Retailers Gear Up for Erratic Holiday Shopping Season, As Supply Chain Disruptions Loom

Charles Branstool, the owner of Exit9 Gift Emporium, said he’s never had this much trouble

Charles Branstool, the owner of Exit9 Gift Emporium, said he’s never had this much trouble stocking his shelves since he first opened his East Village store in 1995. He can’t get his hands on backpacks or certain types of candles.

Instead, he’s been making due with items that aren’t scarce. So far that’s been socks, puzzles, and bagel-making kits.

“I’ve been panic buying. It’s true,” he said. “Almost every day I’m getting emails from my vendors saying, ‘Hey so you know we’re having some supply chain issues.’”

Their advice to Branstool is simple: “‘Order early just know it’s going to come late.’”

Branstool’s experience is the tip of the iceberg in global supply chain disruptions that have come to a head in recent weeks. Ports in Savannah, Georgia and Los Angeles, California are overwhelmed with cargo, with crates stuck on ships for days waiting to be unpacked. Some of the country’s largest retailers like Home Depot and Costco have reportedly begun chartering their own cargo ships in order to circumnavigate the delays.

White House officials announced Wednesday ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach California, which take in 40 percent of all the country’s imported shipping containers, would remain open 24 hours a day to relieve some of the bottleneck.

Officials say there’s not the same standstill at the Port of New York and New Jersey, mainly because the port is less reliant on imports from China which had massive supply chain disruptions during COVID. But they are handling historic amounts of cargo, a 26 percent increase compared to the same time last year. That surge is causing snags in the system down the supply chain.

“The whole system is stressed,” said John Nardi, the president of the New York Shipping Association, which serves as a go-between between terminal operators at the Port of New York and New Jersey and the International Longshoremen’s Association, the union that represents workers at the port. He’s currently hiring another 210 port workers and planning to hire several hundred more workers in the coming months.

“They’re opening up on weekends, when they have to, when there’s a lot of deliveries to be made. They’re staying open at night to make sure the trucks get out at night,” he said. “People are spending extra money to make sure these things happen.”

Bethann Rooney, deputy director of the Port Department at the Port Authority, said while the port’s gears are still grinding, delays further down the supply chain mean shipping containers are sitting on the pier for twice as long as they usually do.

“Warehouses and distribution centers are stuffed to the rafters,” Rooney said. “[There’s] not enough trucks, not enough warehouse workers, not enough warehouse space, so containers will sit on the terminals longer than they typically do because there’s no place for the containers to go to.”

There’s plenty of holiday merchandise already in the area, but there may be issues getting timely refills when first batches sell out, she said.

“The cargo is here, but the replacements could be delayed,” Rooney said. “So if you miss that early shopping season you might be left with nothing but an IOU in your child’s stocking.”

Rooney sees the surge in demand for goods coming from two main buckets: retailers ordering more than usual just to be prepared for any future shut down in global production like what they experienced last year and consumers still buying more goods than services than they did before COVID-19.

In Harlem, Dawn Martine, owner of the toy store Grandma’s Place said she’s been among retailers ordering more than usual. She’s been in business for 22 years, and because of her long-standing relationship with her suppliers, they tipped her off over the summer that she should start placing her Christmas orders right away.

“I ordered twice as much as I would normally buy for that period of time,” Martine said, adding she had to dip into savings to do it. She’s lucky she has a basement and a storage facility for the surplus goods. Her advice to holiday shoppers? “If there’s something particular you want for yourself, you better get it now while it is available.”

At Kiddy House, a toy store in Jamaica, Queens, managers didn’t get the memo from suppliers to order early. Now, manager Luis Luciano said he’s having a hard time stocking most of their inventory—toys, sporting goods, bicycles, hats, and even face masks.

“If you touch one product, there’s nothing behind it,” Luciano said, adding, “there’s a lot of empty shelves.”

Sometimes Luciano has more luck ordering from Amazon than his regular suppliers. But then there’s the quandary that his customers can buy the same thing online at a cheaper price than shopping at Kiddy House.

“It’s gonna be a bleak Christmas,” he said.

Mackenzi Farquer’s supply chain woes first started this spring, when she was gearing up to open her sixth location of Lockwood, a chain of stationery gifts and clothing stores with locations in Brooklyn and Queens. All the pre-made items she needed to fill out the store, like tables and shelves, were on backorder for months.

She ended up turning to local carpenters to custom make shelves and bought tables second-hand. Now she’s having issues stocking shelves at all six locations. Just a fraction of the merchandise that she orders makes it to her door. She’s been over-ordering to compensate. In one case a shipment she ordered sat in a warehouse in Philadelphia for over a month awaiting a truck driver to bring it to New York.

“No trucker would take it from Philadelphia to New York,” she said. A shortage of truck drivers has been another indication of supply chain disruptions. “We just kept calling them, we know but we just can’t find anyone who will pick up this pallet.”

Unlike other retailers, Farquer doesn’t think urging people to shop earlier is the right move. People coming to her store will always find the right gift, if they keep an open mind.

“What we have is out and it’s beautifully displayed and that’s that,” she said. “There’s nothing you can do.”