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You may not get what you want for Christmas this year and it has nothing to do with the naughty or nice list. The problem is being called a supply chain crisis and the first thing to recognize is that it’s more complicated than St. Nick’s magic toy shop.
There have been several excellent attempts to shed some light on it.
As University of North Georgia Professor Zuoming Liu said with an interview with AccessWDUN, anything as large as the U.S. economy is complex and in this case it also involves foreign governments, ports and companies.
Wired magazine (Wired.com), usually known for its reporting on technology, did an excellent job breaking down the problem. The article emphasized that the supply chain has worked flawlessly for decades – to the point, we all expect our packages to show up quickly, with the aberration being flukes when something does get lost. We had reached a point we took it for granted; you clicked on your computer, put in a credit card number on Monday and whatever you wanted, not matter how exotic or faraway, was at the front door or your business by week’s end.
However, Wired and others pointed out, this continued success was based on the predictably of hundreds of individual operators – companies, factories in other countries, ships and whole economies. Pallets were loaded overseas like clockwork, reached ports after a set number of days to be unloaded onto trucks that hauled cargo to warehouses that were open, and staffed.
As the old saying goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and the pandemic set off a series of events showing the weak links were far more numerous than the solid ones.
Wired and others’ coverage traced the breaking point to a combination of shipping companies wrongly assuming the economy would slow with the pandemic, not anticipating that stimulus checks prompted people to shift spending from going out events/dates/vacations to all sorts of stuff for home offices and quarantine hobbies – and mostly bought online, which requires shipping.
“In the US, stimulus checks sent directly to citizens resulted in a 4.2 percent month-on-month increase in consumer spending in March 2021. We’ve also been encouraged to spend our money online, requiring a rapid retooling of the way that businesses work,” said Marc Levinson—author of two books on shipping containers in the Wired article.
Numerous other fault-lines emerged including China cutting factory output substantially, and a shortage of truck drivers in the U.S. Prof. Liu from UNG pointed out that a ship may carry 1,000 containers meaning you need 1,000 trucks waiting. A great 60 Minutes segment on the port near Los Angeles told how there was a substantial problem with a multitude of empty containers piled up at the port not leaving room to unload efficiently. The system went into chaos overwhelmed by too many orders, too few truckers and logistic problems up and down the line.
An article from Capitol Beat news service covering Gov. Brian Kemp and other GOP governors asking for federal intervention to get things moving stated, disruptions due to supply shortage increased 638% during the first half of 2021 for essential products, including semiconductor chips, plastics and cardboard. The delay of shipping vessels arriving to North American ports from Asia has ballooned from “14 hours in June 2020 to 13 days in September 2021.”
While there is little the average person can do to solve the problem, it may help to keep in mind the difference between a supply chain crisis and supply chain inconvenience. Some things are a crisis very legitimately, such as when companies can’t operate because of undelivered inventory or critical parts and all the employees get an unexpected and unpaid holiday.
However, when the issue mainly involves having to substitute one ingredient for another or when you have to settle for a different colored item, it’s just inconvenient.
We recognize that for many people giving awesome gifts at Christmas to kids or grandchildren is very important. And this year that may leave many frustrated, but may we suggest recalling that a lot of grandparents extol the good ol days when you only got a few oranges and a pair of socks you were darn happy to get. Could be a chance to revisit the era of less is more this year.
Also on the good side, several media accounts noted that consumers will do better at small, local retail shops where you can see what’s there and leave the store with a gift, no worries about shipping delays.
We fully recognize that for many businesses and employees the supply chain crisis is truly devastating. But for most of us simple consumers, a Christmas of fewer presents and shopping local isn’t a crisis.