Supply chains in distress: How international shortages are having a local impact

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  • Northampton Bicycle general manager Leila Everett does paperwork in the Pleasant Street shop Oct. 26. Like many others, the shop is running short of supplies because of global disruption following the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’re sharks hunting for parts every week,” Everett said. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton Bicycle mechanic Neal McClung looks over a bike brought in by Elizabeth Hannigan of Northampton last month. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton Bicycle mechanic Neal McClung sets up a tune up for a bike brought in by Elizabeth Hannigan of Northampton on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton Bicycle general manager Leila Everett works in the Pleasant Street shop on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton Bicycle general manager Leila Everett works at the counter of the Pleasant Street shop on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

For the Gazette
Published: 11/7/2021 8:07:41 PM

NORTHAMPTON — In her 12 years at Northampton Bicycle, general manager Leila Everett has never run into shortages this severe on bikes and parts of all kinds.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Everett could put people on bikes that she didn’t even have in the shop within three days. Over the past year, she said, it generally takes between 400 and 500 days to get an online order to her store. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said.

“We’re sharks hunting for parts every week,” Everett said. Anything from iron chains to shifters, wheels and pedals are out of stock. “Even the bike manufacturers can’t get parts.

“We’re ordering anything we can find online,” she said, stockpiling parts because she’s uncertain of when she’ll come across them again.

Northampton Bicycle employees have even resorted to driving up to Maine to pick up used bikes on sale through services such as Facebook Marketplace. And the relationship isn’t one-sided, either. Everett said people are calling in from as far away as New Jersey to request parts, because there’s no place closer that has them in stock.

“I know there’s trucking shortages and a whole bunch of things sitting on the water,” she said. Since “everything comes overseas,” Northampton Bicycle’s return to normalcy can only come as soon as supply chains untangle themselves.

Congested ports, understaffed warehouses, and a shortage of truck drivers are just a few of the factors disrupting global supply chains and sending nationwide ripples that are rocking the Pioneer Valley.

From bike shops to restaurants, bookstores, and mechanics, supply chain distortions are touching sectors across the economy.

Branner Stewart, a senior research manager at the UMass Donahue Institute, offered an explanation. He said that people opted to save a larger slice of their income as a precautionary measure when the economy collapsed during the initial pandemic lockdown. Manufacturers then cut production to match the decreased demand for goods.

“This distorted the way (goods) move around the world,” Stewart said.

Now that people are returning to their traditional spending habits, they are fueling a demand for goods that overshadows what companies are able to supply at the moment. This results in shortages across the board.

Stewart explained that “the whole supply chain issue is everywhere,” citing empty shelves at grocery and general stores. He also said that consumers need to wait longer for larger purchases such as automobiles that take several months to ship.

“It can make the shopping experience frustrating,” he said.

Necessary substitutions

Joe Deng, the owner of LimeRed Teahouse in Amherst, Northampton, and Boston as well as Honeycrisp Chicken in Amherst, understands this too well.

“I ask customers to be forgiving,” he said when it comes to supply shortages.

At his fried chicken eatery, Deng described how he had to replace his “party wings” with “jumbo wings” because nothing else was available. However, since chicken servings are measured by weight, this means customers now receive fewer wings per order and are dissatisfied.

“It’s not my choice that I replaced this with that,” said Deng, who is using whatever is available, especially considering restrictions on orders enforced by suppliers.

“My regular supplier won’t let me order what I need,” he said, which has led him to recently expand from one supplier to three.

“A lot of my stuff comes from Taiwan or China,” Deng said. He said he’s glad that he ordered many supplies back in 2020 because he “can’t imagine ordering new things” with the current port congestion overseas.

Deng suggested that the supply shortages can be traced back to international labor shortages that are backing up the movement of products.

Shannon Ramsey, co-owner of Amherst Books, spoke of her own experience with delayed truck deliveries and sluggish warehouse operations.

“They themselves have been having staffing issues,” she said.

She attributed the current pressure on supply chains to a “frenzy of people trying to buy all at once,” a phenomenon that rings true with the annual holiday season rush on books.

“We’re trying our best to stock up now,” Ramsey said, because “most major books are printed in China.” Since overseas delays constrain her ordering ability, she said Amherst Books “isn’t as nimble as we have been in the past” in terms of stocking up.

In a similar position, Joe Ryan of Joe Ryan Imported Car Repair in Northampton said that “everything comes from China or Japan.” In his experience, he said “the parts shortage has been kind of up and down” over the past few months, but he predicts that “it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

Ryan said parts shortages make his work “more tedious” than it used to be as he has to reach out to multiple suppliers across Massachusetts and Connecticut to get what he needs. Parts can take over a month to get in his shop, whereas he used to be able to make a call and have the same part in his shop within just 20 minutes.

Michael Woodard, co-owner of Ernie’s Garage in Northampton, said that brakes, tires and parts for exhaust systems on cars are “very difficult to find.”

“I’ve never experienced shortages like this,” he said, noting that the situation has gotten worse over the past year.

Stewart of the UMass Donahue Institute said, “The most worrying part of the supply chain… is if these distortions don’t work themselves out.

“This will yield some inflationary pressure,” he said, which “will limit economic growth” and the chances of returning to a booming economy.

Deng has already begun to observe inflation through the rising price of chicken, which in turn puts pressure on him to increase prices for consumers.

“You can only eat the costs for so long,” he said.

Will Sytsma, of Hampshire Bicycle Exchange in Amherst, said his shortages have been ongoing since the pandemic started. “You could say it’s gotten worse because it hasn’t gotten better,” he said.

He said he feels powerless ordering parts online, saying, “We have no control over what comes and when.”

Whereas Sytsma’s shop typically has 300 bicycles in stock, he currently is limited to under 100. A few months ago, he said, they only had around 10.

Despite these issues, Stewart predicts the supply chain issues plaguing the economy will smooth over within a year as the economy recovers and international distortions adjust.

Northampton Bicycle’s Leila Everett said that “wait times are coming down a little bit,” but getting delivery dates down from 500 days and back to three days seems like it might take a miracle.

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