Supply bottlenecks leave ships stranded, businesses stymied

NEW YORK (AP) – A trade bottleneck born of the COVID-19 outbreak has United States (US) businesses anxiously awaiting goods from Asia – while off the coast of California, dozens of container ships sit anchored, unable to unload their cargo.

The pandemic has wreaked havoc with the supply chain since early 2020, when it forced the closure of factories throughout China. The seeds of the current problems were sown last March, when Americans stayed home and dramatically changed their buying habits – instead of clothes, they bought electronics, fitness equipment and home improvement products. US companies responded by flooding re-opened Asian factories with orders, leading to a chain reaction of congestion and snags at ports and freight hubs across the country as the goods began arriving.

Main Street businesses are now forced to wait months instead of the usual weeks for a delivery from China, and no one knows when the situation will be resolved. Owners do a lot of explaining to customers, order more inventory than usual and lower their expectations for when their shipments will arrive.

Alejandro Bras used to be able to place an order to factories in China and expect to receive his products in 30 days. Now, with problems throughout the supply chain, “we’re adding an additional two months,” he said. And that two months is “iffy” – it can take even longer.

Bras’ company, Womple Studios, sells monthly subscription boxes with educational crafts and activities for children; many of the products are custom-made, so he can’t easily find substitutes.

Bras has found himself spending more time on logistics rather than product development, and more time apologising to the Oakland, California, company’s customers who expect a shipment each month. Customers have been understanding – they realise the pandemic has upset shipping and trade worldwide.

The cluster of ships offshore are perhaps the most dramatic symptom of an overwhelmed supply chain. As production surged in Asia, more ships began arriving in the fall at ports in Los Angeles, Long Beach and other West Coast cities than the gateways could handle. Ships holding as many as 14,000 containers have sat offshore, some of them for over a week.

Container cargo ships are seen docked in the Port of Los Angeles. PHOTO: AP