Pandemic-induced shortages create supply chain woes

Pandemic-induced shortages create supply chain woes
Threadleaf owner Nicole McGrew has been able to weather the global supply chain issues by adapting her product lines. (Photo/Threadleaf)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

The second holiday season impacted by the pandemic is upon us, and while persistent global supply chain issues are starting to show signs of easing, local business owners warn customers that not every shelf will be stocked in time for holiday shopping sprees.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted production and supply lines across the country and world. Container ships are still stacked up waiting to dock at the port of Los Angeles, freight costs have skyrocketed and, with production rocketed and, with production stalled in factories across the globe, stock shortages have left people waiting and wanting. The situation has started to improve during the past few months and most major retailers have been able to stock up for the holiday season, but Alexandria’s business owners said there are still challenges to overcome locally.“It’s a tough situation, and everybody’s just getting a little weary,” Rory Callaghan, kitchen planning director at M&M Appliance and Cabinets, said.

More than many others, Callaghan has seen the impact of global supply chain woes on local business. A few months after the pandemic started in March and cities across the world locked down, Callaghan said M&M started to experience kitchen appliance shortages. By September 2020, the situation became “untenable” and customers, frustrated by waiting months for a product that showed no signs of showing up, stopped buying altogether.

“Imagine our frustration. People want to buy, we want to sell, and there’s nothing to sell or very little to sell,” Callaghan said. “And it’s a fluid situation. Somebody will say, ‘I have to have brand X in model 123,’ and I’ll say, ‘Well, if you have to have that, then I hope you can wait because I can’t control it.’”

For some customers, waiting months for the possibility of securing the exact model dishwasher they’ve been eying was not feasible. The most popular, middle budget appliances sold out quickly. As a result, whether they had a broken appliance or were starting a kitchen renovation project, some customers decided to spend double the price on a more expensive model of appliance rather than wait for the supply chain issues to get resolved, Callaghan said.

Supply chain issues have eased up in other industries, but when it comes to appliances, stock shortages persist.

“Whether it’s a stove, a range or a dishwasher, the only stuff that’s available is either in the really low end and the high end,” Callaghan said.

Going into the holiday season, Callaghan is still warning customers that supply chains are volatile and inconsistent. Certain manufacturers, such as the New Zealand-based appliance company Fisher and Pykel, have started to rebound, and supplies are trickling in, but the demand is so high that stock rarely lasts more than a few days.

“Their refrigerators are starting to come back. You just notice it in fits and starts,” Callaghan said. “All of a sudden, we couldn’t get Bosch dishwashers, and that’s the brand everybody asks for and now I have 25. But that’s gonna sell in three days.”

On the other hand, the cabinet side of Callaghan’s business has remained relatively steady. He used to deliver finished cabinet orders in eight weeks, and while that has now been pushed back to 12 weeks, it is a consistent 12-week delivery period. Most other name brand cabinet providers at retailers like Home Depot have had to push orders back upward of six months, according to Callaghan.

M&M’s cabinet supply has been able to survive relatively unscathed because of one advantage local businesses have over their international counterparts: tight, well-established relationships.

“Our cabinets are hand-built by a little shop filled with Finnish carpenters that I’ve known for 25 years,” Callaghan said. “They locally source their wood in Pennsylvania – they might have to buy it from outside [Pennsylvania] now – but they’re still getting it. There’s no shortage of wood. The price has gone up a little bit, but we’re still on schedule. We’re delivering cabinets.”

Nicole McGrew, owner of Old Town boutique Threadleaf, has similarly close relationships with the designers who craft her apparel and home and gardening goods. However, McGrew faced a different challenge during the pandemic.

At Threadleaf, McGrew sells apparel and goods from a curated selection of vendors, many of whom operate in the United States but source their supplies from Europe or Japan. With international supply lines disrupted, suddenly McGrew’s suppliers had to cancel orders or push them back up to four months.

“I have one designer that I work with who’s based in Georgia but gets all of her fabric from Italy. Italy was hit much harder, much more quickly than the United States, and that affected her ability to deliver because she couldn’t get the fabric,” McGrew said.

International orders were not the only ones disrupted. McGrew also has suppliers in California, which faced its own massive COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent lengthy lockdown.

“I picture it as like a little wave that as COVID moved across the globe, that’s how the supply chain issues were moving along as well,” McGrew said.

Even when shipments were delivered to her suppliers, McGrew said that staffing shortages among dock workers and truck drivers delayed her deliveries for even longer.

“One designer that I work with in Chicago, there was just a labor shortage at the docks, so she couldn’t get the fabric off the boat and out of the shipyard and into her factory to make anything,” McGrew said. “That was a backlog of six weeks of just the fabric sitting in Chicago on a dock.”

According to McGrew, the supply chain issues she experienced early on in the pandemic have largely been resolved, and, in some ways, the pandemic required some pivots from both herself and her suppliers that have proven beneficial in the long term. Prior to the pandemic, she would order products six months in advance, but the recent supply line chaos has led to many of her suppliers shifting their design times so that McGrew can order six weeks in advance.

McGrew said she also had to change her product mix to adapt to stock shortages and expand what people actually wanted and needed during lockdown. An avid gardener herself, McGrew expanded her selection of seeds and gardening supplies. She also shifted more toward home goods and created a small vintage section in Threadleaf.

“The word of last year is ‘nimble’ or ‘pivot’ because I still had my cost structure, I still had my store, and so I had to have something in it. I just kind of shifted to what are the things I can get and what are the things that people seem to want right now anyway,” McGrew said.

For Callaghan, the pandemic-induced supply chain issues forced customers to purchase appliances in a new way that shifted the focus away from matching brand appliances and toward the best available equipment.

“From my perspective, as a kitchen designer and a cook, I don’t have two matching appliances in my home because I’ve deliberately sought out the best dishwasher, the best range, the best fridge for my purposes at my budget. Nothing matches, and that’s the hallmark of a properly outfitted kitchen, instead of chasing after everything to look good,” Callaghan said.

With the holiday shopping season kicking into high gear, McGrew said new challenges have arisen. Stock has returned to the store, but due to the increase in online orders, packaging, such as cardboard boxes, is both harder and more expensive to come by.

Callaghan said he doesn’t “have a crystal ball” that can tell him when the end of his supply chain woes will come, but he, McGrew and other local business owners remain optimistic that the holiday season and start of 2022 will yield some yuletide cheer.

“I think because of all of the shipping headaches, all of the supply chain stories folks are hearing about, they are hopefully going to take it to heart. And also [they are] just seeing how nice it is to have things that you can just walk to and get something as opposed to waiting and waiting,” McGrew said. “I think all of those factors combined will hopefully make this holiday season a good one as well.”