Toilet paper is back on shelves, but a year into pandemic, shoppers still have trouble finding these 6 things

  • With sales of exercise bikes going up during the pandemic, trendy options like Peloton machines have been on long backorder lists. AP

Published: 2/19/2021 2:52:30 PM

DALLAS — If you’re buying furniture, a mountain bike, fishing gear or a car, expect to be greeted with this message: “Some deliveries may be delayed due to COVID-19.”

2020 was marked by shortages of toilet paper, Clorox wipes and mac and cheese at the supermarket. But this year, new shortages are popping up as the pandemic tests the global supply chain in ways Americans haven’t had to worry much about before.

“Your furniture salesperson isn’t a liar,” said John Pinion, president of the International Home Furnishings Representatives Association. “We’re dealing with new challenges every second trying to get product to you.”

Pinion, who lives in Austin, Texas, posted a 34-second video on LinkedIn that illustrates one link in the chain that’s making promises hard to keep.

Taken from a beach in Los Angeles, a panoramic view shows one cargo ship after another floating in place, each holding as many as 20,000 20-foot shipping containers of parts, hardware and finished goods. A lot of it has already been purchased by consumers.

“We’re seeing as many as 20 to 40 vessels at the Port of Los Angeles waiting to be unloaded,” said Kimberly Duca, vice president of business development for Noatum Logistics.

COVID-19 outbreaks at ports have caused labor shortages, she said. “It’s tough to find new hires, then they may not be as efficient as the regular staff.” And the trucks set up to carry goods inland won’t just wait around, so they end up leaving without a load and shifting to other work.

Experts who study the global supply chain said the disruption is so severe that issues will spill into 2022 and maybe even later for some products. Peloton, which operates its customer service operation in Plano, paid $47.4 million to buy one of its major manufacturers in Taiwan in October to try to reverse its supply issues, but it’s still disappointing customers with delivery schedules.

To understand today’s shortages, back up to the start of the pandemic last March and April, Duca said, when retailers were forced to temporarily close and consumers limited their shopping to groceries.

Retailers pulled back on orders, not knowing what was ahead, Duca said. “Steamships were pulled out to correspond with the drop in demand. Then it took a while to bring them back online.”

Then stimulus checks and the realization that the stay-at-home lifestyle was indefinite unleashed a spending surge, especially on home goods and toys. Soon it was time to order for Christmas.

January through March is usually a slow period for shipments, but not this year.

Retailers and manufacturers have ramped up their orders, and rates for ocean freight have skyrocketed. A container that may have cost $1,000 to $2,000 to ship from Asia to the West Coast pre-pandemic is now $8,000 to $10,000, Duca said.

Here are the nuances behind a few of the shortages we’re seeing.

Chip crunch hits car buyers

A global shortage of semiconductor chips, driven by limited supply and skyrocketing demand, is hitting not only the electronics industry but automakers as well.

As cars have evolved to include more electronic features, they’ve relied on more semiconductor chips to produce.

Demand for new vehicles has bounced back quickly from pandemic lows in early 2020, and the ongoing shortage could trickle down to consumers. Experts have said it could become more difficult for car buyers to find specific models or colors.

Three North American GM plants have been shuttered due to the shortage, but CEO Mary Barra has said it won’t affect the company’s truck production, a good portion of which is handled at its assembly plant in Arlington. That facility remains at full production.

Meanwhile, Toyota has slowed production of its Tundra trucks at a plant near San Antonio. Ford, Fiat Chrysler and Nissan have also said in the past month that they’ll cut production due to the shortage.

Where can I get a PS5?

2020 was the biggest year for video game hardware sales in a decade, according to a recent NPD Group report. But a combination of insatiable demand and supply chain issues, similar to what automakers are seeing, have limited the availability of new video game consoles, including the Xbox Series X and Playstation 5.

Both Sony and Microsoft released their next-generation game consoles in late 2020. To the dismay of fans, they sold out almost instantly.

Two months later, consumers are still scrambling to get their hands on the consoles, which can sell out online in a matter of seconds after new stock is posted.

The boom in consumer electronics sales as more people stayed home during the pandemic is partially to blame, but Sony and Microsoft recently said they’re both struggling with shortages of hardware as well.

The urge to get outside

Waiting lists to purchase popular Trek bikes at shops around the nation have hundreds of names on them, and some models can take three to eight months to arrive, even at the company’s branded stores.

Demand for outdoor exercise blossomed during the pandemic and hasn’t waned. High-end fishing rods and reels and stand-up paddleboards are still in short supply at Cabela’s and other stores.

“The supply chain is broken, and it’s going to take some time to get it back together,” said Ken “Woody” Smith, who owns Richardson Bike Mart, which operates four stores.

If you like that couch, buy it

Furniture retailers are encouraging shoppers to first shop in-stock products because of unpredictable delivery dates. That’s the message at Nebraska Furniture Mart, which says that because of the COVID-19 crisis, “manufacturing delays with many of our vendor partners are causing inventory shortages and shipping delays.”

Pinion, of the home furnishings association, said he tells people if they see something they like and can take it home, do it. The U.S. only makes 3% of furniture sold here, he said.

“It’s frustrating, because prior to COVID, we were all living in an Amazon culture,” Pinion said. “You wanted a sofa? You had five sources that could deliver it to you.”

Grocery aisles restocked

Grocery aisles are pretty much back to normal after consumers stripped shelves of items last spring, not knowing what life had in store.

Since then, retailers have restocked warehouses at higher levels than before, and manufacturers have shifted production to make more of the items that were most in demand. There was plenty of toilet paper and Clorox wipes on the shelves during a recent trip to a Walmart and a Kroger in Dallas.

But some products are still out of stock. Formula 409 all-purpose cleaner is one of those.

When the pandemic began, Clorox focused production on Clorox disinfecting bleach and Pine-Sol. Those items are on store shelves, and the company is making and distributing wipes at a record rate of 1.5 million canisters a day starting this month.

“We are just now ramping back up production of our Formula 409 cleaners and expect to catch up with demand later this year,” Steinkrauss said.

Ammunition is ‘hell to find’

A confluence of political turmoil, pandemic hoarding and manufacturing problems has made firearm ammunition tough to find.

There are shortages of rifle, shotgun and pistol ammo at some of the bigger stores such as Bass Pro Shops and Academy Sports. Some stores have dialed back on firearms and ammunition sales under political pressure at the same time that FBI statistics indicate a record number of gun sales in 2020.

“This is a pandemic-driven shortage, and I believe it will last for at least another four-plus years,” said Matthew Campbell, president of manufacturer Precision Ammunition in Mineral Wells.

In 2020, the FBI processed 39.7 million background checks for firearm purchases, a 25% increase over the next-highest on record in 2019. The FBI did more than 4.1 million background checks last month, a record for any month.

Historically, firearm and ammunition sales go up in years when Democrats take the White House or Congress and consumers are worried about new firearm restrictions. But ammunition buyers were out in force early in the pandemic, stocking up on bullets just as other consumers bought toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

At the Texas Legends Gun Range in Allen, training and education director Greg Taggart said demand is high for ammunition right now.

“We have ammo,” Taggart said. “It’s hell to find and we are paying our distributors $35, $40 to $50 per 50-round 9-millimeter box that last March we retailed at $14.”

Jason Vanderbrink, CEO of ammunition manufacturer Federal, CCI, Speer and Remington, has posted a series of videos on YouTube trying to convince consumers that it’s not holding back supplies for political reasons.

“Rest assured, we made a lot more hunting ammo in 2020 than we did any year of the history of our company,” Vanderbrink said in the video.

Mac and cheese, please

The global pandemic could have been disastrous for a Plano-based cheese distributor as eateries closed and its regular exports out of Houston to Central and South America dried up.

But Wisconsin’s Finest had another product it had just started making a few months before the crisis started: boxed organic macaroni and cheese.

The company was encouraged to get into the mac and cheese business because there were few organic alternatives to dominant brand Annie’s and young families were seeking organic.

It was already selling mac and cheese to Northeastern regional grocers Stop & Shop and Giant. Since then, Wisconsin’s Finest boxed pasta, which comes in four flavors and shapes, has added retail customers B.J.’s Wholesale Club, Walgreens and Walmart.

Last spring and summer, the convenience food was booming as a stay-at-home staple for families faced with cooking all day. “There’s no way Americans can be buying that much mac and cheese. It was crazy,” said Logan Williams, vice president of sales at Wisconsin’s Finest.

At the same time, the family-owned and -operated company, which sells cheddar, mozzarella and pepper jack cheese in 40-pound blocks to food service operations, was able to shift into slices, shredded packages and smaller blocks for supermarket delis.

Grocers were the retail winners of the pandemic, and being able to shift the business to retail saved the company, Williams said. “If we had just been supplying the food service business, we would have been in real trouble.”

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