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Supply Chain Bottlenecks

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    Container cargo ships are docked in the Port of Los Angeles, California, on March 3, 2021. A trade bottleneck due to the COVID-19 outbreak kept dozens of container ships from unloading their cargo. (AP/Damian Dovarganes)
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    A worker assembles products at a factory in Beijing. (AP/Ng Han Guan)
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    Two dockworkers discuss the placement of a 40-foot shipping container onto a ship at the Port of Savannah in Georgia. (AP/Stephen B. Morton)
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    Stacked containers wait to be loaded on to trucks at the Port of Oakland in Oakland, California. (AP/Ben Margot)
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    A number of container ships wait to dock at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach off the California coast. (AP/Damian Dovarganes)
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The pandemic has wreaked havoc worldwide. Now a supply bottleneck has U.S. businesses awaiting goods from Asia—while docked ships can’t unload. Something in the supply chain’s gotta give.

The supply chain is the process of making and selling goods, from beginning to end. Obtaining raw materials, manufacturing and delivering products, selling them—these are links in the chain. When one link gets jammed, or bottlenecked, the whole chain suffers. Such bottlenecks create delays, raise production costs, and leave people in need.

Alejandro Bras’ company, Womple Studios, supplies monthly educational activity boxes for kids. Bras orders from factories in China. He used to receive toys and books for his boxes in 30 days. Now, with supply chain bottlenecks, “We’re adding an additional two months,” he says, sometimes longer.

Here’s why:

Early in 2020, illnesses from the novel coronavirus forced factory closures throughout China. Soon after, Americans began quarantining at home and altering buying habits. Many stopped ordering clothes (who needs ’em? Everyone’s wearing pjs!) and started ordering fitness equipment and home improvement items.

The United States then flooded re-opening Asian factories with orders to meet new demand. Goods from Asia began entering West Coast cities. But low on workers, U.S. ports couldn’t handle the influx. At times in late 2020, as many as 40 ships holding up to 14,000 containers each sat offshore, some for over a week.

There were choke points on land as well. One ship can require 8,000 trucks to haul its cargo away. When those trucks finally arrive, load up, and hit the road, there aren’t enough vehicles left to hold the cargos of the ships that wait in line.

Even if trucks are available, the virus itself is sidelining dockworkers. It takes five to seven days to unload a ship in port now instead of the usual two to three.

“Normally, a shipment can be booked with a couple days’ notice,” says Peter Mann, CEO of an air purifier maker that imports supplies. “Currently you have to book containers 30 days in advance.”

Today, many businesses wait months instead of weeks for deliveries from China. No one knows when the situation will resolve.

Craig Wolfe’s company, CelebriDucks, has had trouble getting rubber ducks from China. One shipment sat on a dock for three weeks because no railcars were available. Another that Wolfe expected to ship by mid-February still hadn’t left China at the first of April.

CelebriDucks aren’t typical ducks—they’re based on current celebrities and pop culture trends. So Wolfe’s faddish waterfowl have a limited popularity shelf life. He’s hoping the shipping industry can get its ducks in a row soon so that he can sell his!