Between the uncertainty of coronavirus variants and the ongoing supply chain congestion, folks might want to get a jump on that holiday shopping early this year.

That was the word from the Port of Los Angeles — where container ships continue to wait for days outside the complex — and leading retailers on Wednesday, Sept. 15.

“Get out and buy toys now,” said Ed Desmond, executive vice president of the Toy Association. “If you see toys you think the kids are going to want for Christmas, pick them up now and tuck them away to make sure you have them. Right now, stores have a pretty healthy supply. We just don’t know what’s going to happen when we get down the road closer to Christmas.”

Desmond’s remarks came during Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka’s monthly online news conference to provide updates on what has been an unprecedented, months-long, record-breaking surge in cargo.

The Port of L.A.’s August numbers, however, fell ever-so-slightly — down 0.8% — below the record set in August 2020.

The port handled 954,377 twenty-foot equivalent units, the container size that serves as the standard measurement, in the past month.

Imports declined 6% in August 2021 from the previous August, Seroka said, largely because retailers a year ago were trying to restock empty shelves after the first several months of the pandemic and lockdowns.

The Port of Long Beach moved 807,704 TEUs in August — an 11.3% increase compared to the same month in 2020. It was that port’s best August on record.

And the cargo surge, Seroka said, is expected to continue into 2022 thanks to a continued trend of online buying that skyrocketed in the past several months.

But the surge has caused logistical challenges.

There were 146 vessels in port at Los Angeles and Long Beach on Wednesday, according to figures provided by the Marine Exchange of Southern California. That broke the former record of 142 — set just the day before.

Eighty-eight of those were at anchor or in drift areas awaiting berth assignments to unload. That trend is expected to hold steady or see a slight trend downward.

The port processed 16 ships a day in August, Seroka said.

With holiday peak shipments underway, cargo ship congestion continues at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach as seen here from the Port of LA/Marine Exchange in San Pedro on Wednesday, September 15, 2021. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

Port of Long Beach Executive Director Mario Cordero said a week ago that both ports will need to continue adapting to the ongoing consumer demands that require port efficiency and a close watch on port customer costs.

Jonathan Gold, vice president of Supply Chain and Customs Policies for the National Retail Federation, said the organization’s holiday outlook won’t be released for a few weeks.

But, he said, early holiday shopping is anticipated this year.

Desmond, meanwhile, said more in-person shopping is expected compared to the 2020 holidays, when the country was in the middle of a deadly winter surge of the coronavirus.

Gold agreed.

“As things have opened back up,” Gold said, “the economy is in a much different spot than it was last year.”

Port congestion, Gold said, will continue to be a challenge.

“The challenge has been that the entire supply chain is stretched,” he said in a telephone interview Wednesday, Sept. 15.

Mitigation plans for retailers have included shipping earlier than usual, looking at alternative routes and ports, and even exploring the expensive option of airfreight.

The entire supply chain has been impacted by the cargo surge, Gold said, from the availability of anchorages and work crews to trucks, rail, terminal and warehouse space.

“There’s no one silver bullet to fix everything,” he said.

Retailers, meanwhile, are trying to avoid shortages ahead of the holidays.

The Target Corporation, for example, has chartered a container ship as one of its options for making sure merchandise arrives in time, said a spokeswoman for the popular shopping chain.

A representative for Home Depot stores said holiday decorations will go up within the next few weeks.

“I think there’s still a lot of uncertainty over the pandemic and within the supply chain itself,” Gold said. “But I think people want to celebrate.

“It’s been a challenge,” he added, “but retailers have stepped up and have been ready for what comes next.”

Walmart, another mega-chain, decided to do what Desmond recommended shoppers do — get merchandise early.

“We were able to put some orders in early this year,” said Scott Pope, senior director of Global Communications for Walmart. “Much of that was moved on chartered vessels through less congested ports, which has proven effective.”

Pope, in an email, said port congestion is a factor as it can affect inventory.

“That said, we reported higher inventory in the 2nd quarter than a year ago and we’d like to see our inventory levels continue to improve,” he said. “But we feel good about our inventory positioning going into the holidays.”

But smaller companies face bigger challenges, Desmond said, noting that container fees have skyrocketed for businesses that don’t operate under annual contracts.

“We’re looking at every possible solution during these next few months to get products on the shelves for these stores,” Desmond said, adding that later in the season there could be less variety from which to choose.

Consumers buying toys online, he said, should check safety information carefully as there will be knock-off versions of popular items.

“One of the changes we’re going to see is people out shopping more in retail stores,” Desmond said.

Desmond also said that nearly all of the most popular toy categories, such as action figures, are currently available and that prices increases have been “only modest.”

“It’s a great time now to shop for toys,” Desmond said. “In the near future, you’ll see toys on the shelves and you’ll hopefully find what you’re looking for.”

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