How will supply chain shortages affect the holidays?

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A US flag flies near containers stacked high on a cargo ship at the Port of Los Angeles on September 28, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. – A record number of cargo ships are stuck floating and waiting off the southern California coast amid a supply chain crisis which could mean fewer gifts and toys for Christmas this year as a combination of growing volumes of cargo, Covid-19 related saftey measures and a labor shortage slow the handling and processing of cargo from each ship. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – It’s like a scene straight from your favorite holiday movie.

Christmas Eve, and the perfect gift is nowhere to be found. This year, that classic trope — the last-minute panicked shopping frenzy — could become a reality for many people.

With the pandemic-motivated consumer goods shortages, items are selling out faster than usual. It can be hard to find a new phone, a pair of skis for the upcoming season, or — even still — your brand of toilet paper at the store. And as holiday shopping picks up, finding a specific item might become even more difficult. Local economics experts say that while there’s reason to be concerned, there are still ways for shoppers to find the perfect gift for everyone on their list.

“It looks like it’s going to be a different Christmas this year,” says Michael Mamo, associate professor of economics at Westminster College. “Not only are prices rising, but people are spending a lot more, which is causing a lot of backlog.”

Supply chain disruptions and the related shortages in consumer goods are not news to most shoppers.

When the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe, manufacturing plants shut down, upending production, inventory, and shipping practices seemingly all at once.

At the same time, consumers were panic buying in stores as well as ordering a surplus of items online. Now, with an excess of orders, products are bottlenecking at ports – and labor shortages exacerbate the problem even more.  

“Once these disruptions happen, they tend to have a domino effect,” Mamo says.

Shoppers can also expect shipping delays this season, says Dean Baker, senior economist at the Center for Economic Policy Research and visiting professor at the University of Utah.

“If you’re expecting that you’re going to get everything in two to three days, that’s probably not going to be true,” he says.

But although supply chain shortages and related delays present extra challenges for holiday shopping this year, they don’t have to ruin the holidays. Both Mamo and Baker recommend shopping early to avoid retailers running out of specific products.

“Place your order as early as possible,” Mamo says. “Things could run out maybe a few weeks before the holiday. Many of us are accustomed to doing last-minute shopping for gifts. That might be a risk this year.”

As far as which items will run out, Baker says it’s hard to tell. With the excess of goods clogging up port operations, the focus for workers is on clearing the docks to make way for the next ship, which delays the unpacking of some items.

“If there’s a ship that’s carrying bicycles that are going to stores in Salt Lake City and it gets pushed to the side, then other items get moved ahead,” he says. “It’s not even that people wanted to pay more for those other items, but [port workers] are in a rush and this is what ends up happening.”  

Another way to shop this year is by looking to local businesses and artisans for gifts. Salt Lake City boasts a wide variety of options for shopping local, from maker’s markets like Salt & Honey and The Hive Market to art galleries and shops like the Urban Arts Gallery and the shop at UMOCA.

“If you see it in the store, you know you’re going to have it,” Baker says. “If it’s locally made then you don’t have this issue of it having to travel across the country.”

COVID-19 has changed many things in our lives, and it appears that this years’ holiday shopping is not exempt. But if we’ve learned anything, it’s that there are ways to adjust.

“This is the reality and we have to adapt to it,” Mamo says.

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