Holiday shopping season starts early as labor, supply chain poses challenges for Maine retailers

Ari Gersen’s Longfellow Books in Portland is at the end of a long supply chain that has become rusty and twisted, leaving him worried about what the rest of the year and the key holiday season has in store for him and him. his company.

“December is just a big question mark right now,” Gersen said, as he’s not sure which books he’ll get and when.

Books sold by Gersen are often printed overseas, which can delay entry into overcrowded ports. Then the books are handed over to truckers to take them to warehouses, but a shortage of truck drivers means more backups. Finally, warehouses are understaffed, causing delays in getting books to stores, such as Gersen’s store in Monument Square.

All on top of the 2020 holiday season which Gersen said was “a total blur,” with his store switching from curbside pickup to in-person shopping about a month before the holiday started.

Retailers might hope this year becomes a “total blur” as well. Problems with getting products from manufacturers to retailers have arisen periodically throughout the year, but are reaching a crescendo as we enter the critical holiday season. The problems are, in some cases, caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and in other cases simply exacerbated by the virus, from clogged ports to a shortage of truckers and a shortage of manpower leaving warehouses short of staff.

Some retailers, including Gersen, are warning customers that if they don’t shop early, they may be missing out on some of the freebies they want to give this year. He said he was accepting orders for books to ship to a buyer’s home until December 20, confident the order could be returned in just days and arrive in time to be packed and placed under the tree.

But this year, its deadline is two weeks earlier, and Gersen is telling customers to come over and start making their selections soon instead of waiting for the traditional buying push after Thanksgiving.

“It’s not like we’re going to be going back to the store for Christmas tomorrow, but they should order now,” he said.

Portland’s Monique Lefebvre looks at clothes while shopping at Mexicali Blues in Portland’s Old Port on Wednesday. Derek Davis / Personal Photographer


Retailers’ concerns about having enough product to fill store shelves “speak for how fragile the supply chain is,” said Curtis Picard, President and COO of the Retail Association of Maine.

Picard said there are knots, stress points and breaks along the chain that carries products from manufacturers to retailers and customers.

“It’s called a chain for a reason,” he said, explaining that disruptions anywhere on the line – safeguarded ports, slow ground transportation systems and warehouses and retailers facing labor shortages – could lead to empty shelves this holiday season.

Retailers are encouraging customers to start crossing items off their lists sooner, sooner or even before Halloween decorations are put back in stock.

“I hate to quote Marden’s, but if you see it, buy it,” Picard said, referring to the Maine-based chain of bargain warehouses.

Overloaded ports in California

Cargo containers are stacked in the Port of Los Angeles on October 20 in San Pedro, California. Ringo HW Chiu / Associated press

Picard’s advice is expected to apply until mid-2022, said Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy for the National Retail Federation.

Gold said demand for manufacturing components – leading plastic, glass and microchips – has increased as manufacturers emerge from the pandemic and attempt to ramp up production.

And it has also resulted in a lack of containers to ship these products, little space on ships, overcrowded ports and a lack of drivers to transport goods on the roads, he said.

“It impacts everything across the board,” Gold said.

Some manufacturers and retailers responded by pushing orders a few months earlier this summer, he said, but “to be honest it created more congestion because everyone else did.”

Gold said it would be wrong to water down the issues or suggest retailers are pushing them to kick off the holiday season.

“At every step of the supply chain, there is a problem,” he said. “The whole system is under maximum pressure right now.”


Maine retailers, like their counterparts across the country, are trying to find a way to avoid a crisis of empty shelves welcoming shoppers over the next two months.

Topher Mallory, general manager of Maine-based clothing company Mexicali Blues, said the company encountered problems getting goods to its five stores last year and decided it was a hindrance that they were likely to encounter again.

“Pretty early on, we said, ‘I don’t think this (problem) is going anywhere for a while,’” Mallory said.

Normally, the business would firm up its vacation orders in the summer, four or five months before shopping for the peaks of the vacation season. But this year, Mallory said, the orders came while stores were still recording 2020 sales.

Because of this, Mallory said he is confident that Mexicali Blues will have enough merchandise to transport them during the holiday season, although he cautions that customers who buy online from the company should allow sufficient time to carry them around. that the items are dispatched. He said the store used the U.S. Postal Service to ship much of its merchandise last year, but delays have caused it to switch to UPS this year.

Mexicali Blues employee Lily Herb is hosting a clothing display at the Old Port store in Portland on Wednesday. Derek Davis / Personal Photographer

Still, Mallory said he refuses to join those who encourage shoppers to start their vacation listings well in advance. He said it was unwise to cause panic buying from customers who are convinced they won’t be able to find what they want if they wait until December.

“Racking up things and buying just to buy things is not something I would promote,” he said. “All you read is buy, buy, buy and that has never been my mantra.”

A few blocks from Treehouse Toys, Rania Levine said she worried about customers who wanted a specific item that might be in short supply. Levine, the store’s manager and buyer, said she could normally order and receive these items before the holidays, but not this year.

Levine said its suppliers have stopped providing information on delivery times, and Ravensburger, a German puzzle and game maker, just canceled a bunch of orders retailers including Treehouse Toys had placed.

Levine said the store was always fairly well stocked as she followed manufacturers’ suggestions that orders should be placed in June, a few months ahead of normal.

“It was a bit of a scramble,” she said. “It’s strange new territory, but it’s in line with the past year and a half.”

Sales professional Jen Aguayo, left, helps South Portland’s Peggy Curry as she shops at Springer’s Jewelers Thursday in Portland. Derek Davis / Personal Photographer


Lilly Mullin, president of Springer’s Jewelers, said she joined retailers who kicked their own buying plans into high gear earlier this year because they worried about strength and adaptability of the supply chain.

She said Springer’s and other jewelers saw the impact of the pandemic in 2020 when Italy – where many jewelry designers are based – was hit hard. Earlier this year, they saw it again when the virus spread across India, the center of the diamond-cutting trade, and there were lingering issues with China, d ‘where many pearls come from.

“We saw it coming,” Mullin said, “so we started nine months ago.”

Mullin said his strategy was simple: order early and often.

“We over-ordered in everything,” she said, not wanting customers to be disappointed with a narrow selection.

The company has also dealt more directly than in the past with original suppliers, which has resulted in stronger business relationships.

“They were very small localized businesses,” she said, “so that brought us down to the human level – they were small businesses like us.”

Allie Ophardt of Portland, who recently moved from Arizona, is looking for a pair of winter gloves at Renys on Wednesday in Portland. Derek Davis / Personal Photographer

John Reny said his family’s Maine department store chain also typically deals with suppliers who are small businesses, but that doesn’t mean supply chain issues haven’t arisen for Renys.

For example, a Maine-based jam company couldn’t fulfill its normal order because the global glass shortage meant it couldn’t get enough jars, he said.

“The stories you hear are just amazing,” said Reny, president of the company.

Reny said he told his buyers to be nimble, and if a supplier couldn’t assure them that they would get the products delivered on time, they would have to look elsewhere.

“I don’t want Christmas stuff on December 12,” he said, as items arriving this late could go unsold and end up as discounted January items.

Reny said his company’s biggest problem was the shortage of workers in Maine. The company cut its evening hours during the height of the pandemic, he said, and does not have enough staff to relocate them, even though they are paying $ 15 an hour to start.

“You need hands – lots and lots of hands – to get it out of the warehouse and into the stores,” he said.

But in summary, the key to this holiday season is simple, Reny said.

“The people who have the merchandise will do well,” he said.

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