Supply Chain Council of European Union |

Port Houston supply chain struggling to meet demand, as 10,000 trucks arrive each day

Dozens of trucks, dwarfed by a sea of towering containers, inched like ants down Port Road on a recent morning into Port Houston’s container terminal in Seabrook, where they wrapped around a maze of many-colored boxes.

From atop the port’s tallest crane, 30 stories high, piles of containers stretched far enough to blur the eyes.

“You see it’s just truck after truck after truck,” said Lisa Ashley, the port’s public relations director, pointing into the distance. Around 10,000 trucks come through the port per day now.

All this bustle may not be enough to feed the holiday retail beast. The network of factories, ships, trucks, warehouses and people that get goods on shelves has buckled under the weight of COVID-19 outbreaks, unable to keep up with soaring demand for consumer goods. U.S. ports took in a monthly record of 2.3 million retail containers in May alone, up from 1.5 million the year before, according to the National Retail Federation, but even that surge has been unable to keep shelves stocked.

Around 281,500 containers came through Port Houston in September, up 11 percent from last year, when cargo volumes started increasing and port congestion began to build at the nation’s ports. Now, the average ship is waiting more than two days for an opening at the docks in Port Houston, it said. Off the coast of California, the average ship is waiting two weeks to enter ports.

“Given how much demand is up since the onset of COVID-19, it definitely has put constraints on the system as a whole,” said Christina Boni, retail analyst for the financial services firm Moody’s.Which are going to take some time to work themselves through.”

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The import influx traces back to March, when whispers of widespread product shortages started making the rounds. The reaction from retailers was swift.

They ordered early and they ordered more than they normally would, pushing retail imports to unprecedented volumes that overwhelmed international shipping, clogged ports and wore down domestic shipping channels. At the heart of their ordering frenzy: stocking up for the holidays.

Now, all that’s left to do is wait — something retailers have done a lot of lately.

“There’s a whole lot of things that haven’t come in yet,” said Bering’s Hardware owner Augie Bering, noting he’s still waiting on the lighted Christmas trees his staff ordered in January. “We don’t know if they’ll come in time for Christmas.”

Like many retailers, Bering is waiting on goods tied up at ports and in warehouses, and getting few answers about when he might see them. Pam Kuhl-Linscomb, owner of the Houston department store Kuhl-Linscomb, said she was still waiting in October for the holiday wreaths she ordered in April. “We’ve got about half of what we ordered for Christmas,” she said.

Consumers, shopping earlier than ever in response to the reported shortages, are already feeling the product pinch. They encountered 2 billion out-of-stock messages while online shopping last month, up 325 percent from October 2019, according to Adobe Analytics, which tracks ecommerce spending.

The so-called “stockouts” are happening most with electronics, jewelry, apparel, home goods and pet products, Adobe found.

Seeing an opportunity, Best Buy started a membership program this year, charging shoppers $200 annually for access to free shipping, tech help and first shots at short-stocked items such as the coveted Sony Playstation 5, which launched last year and has been very difficult to find.

Tight supplies are already creating tension in stores. Kuhl-Linscomb recalled putting out gold holiday garland at her Montrose store and around two hours later she returned to find the basket empty and two women arguing over the remains.

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Shortages are also driving up prices. Rolex production shut down during the pandemic, driving up the price of used Rolexes around 50 percent, said Rex Solomon, who sells them at Houston Jewelry.

The strained flow of supply sometimes leads to awkward spurts. Carol Staley, owner of Tomfoolery Toys in Meyerland, said she placed an order in July for Calico Critters, fuzzy, clothed animals that come with varying accessories, for the back-to-school season. That order just arrived along with her holiday order of Calico Critters, and now she can’t figure out where to stash them all.

“We’re swimming in Calico Critters,” she said, laughing.

Bering said he’s struggling to stock shelves across all categories in his Houston-based hardware and department stores, from crystal glassware to log splitters. He’s also having a hard time finding paint to sell after the February freeze shut down petrochemical production, leading to a shortage of resins used in paints, plastics and other consumer goods.

Petrochemicals are also used to make the foam needed to fill mattresses, so the tight supply coupled with surging demand for furniture during the pandemic caused a cascading mattress shortage, said Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale. It’s why you’re paying more for mattresses this holiday season, he said. “If you can find ‘em.”

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