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‘Halloween costumes are still coming through the ports’

The supply chain remains snarled as the holiday season enters its final stretch

Containers stacked high at the Port of Los Angeles. (Photo: Shutterstock)

When you look at the millions of containers processed through our nation’s ports, many Americans do not realize that a single container can have hundreds of different products within each box. With the pressure to fulfill the holiday deadlines of their customers, logistics companies like C.H. Robinson are deploying employees to open these containers and sort out time-sensitive items in an effort to get them on store shelves on time.

“One of the unique things we’re doing is using our warehouse space in port cities to sort their containers and pull out the most urgent product,” said Noah Hoffman, retail expert and vice president of North American Surface Transportation for C.H. Robinson. 

“Why take up space on a truck with late Halloween costumes or Valentine’s inventory that’s arriving when toys and wrapping paper need to get to stores right now? We’ve even taken ocean containers to our employee parking lot in Southern California, sorted them by hand and built displays that can go directly onto a store floor. With so many kinks in supply chains these days, skipping a few links in the chain makes all the difference.”

The bills of lading, compiled using ImportGenius, show the indisputable trend of this massive congestion during the weeks of Thanksgiving through the second week of December.

“All the Christmas merchandise would be somewhere a consumer could buy it well before Black Friday — off the ship, out of containers, at a distribution center for online orders or physically on a shelf,” Hoffman explained. “What’s different about this year is that Christmas merchandise is still on its way. Believe it or not, Halloween costumes are still coming through the ports. That’s how backed up things still are.”

The increase in port calls during this 16-day window shows the dissemination in the flow of trade.  

“In a normal market, we’d be moving replenishment goods for our customers right now,” Hoffman said. “But you can’t replenish what you couldn’t get in the first place. Instead, we’re moving new product that our retailers are just now able to get from their suppliers.”

One of the biggest challenges facing logistics companies and importers is the length of time it takes for containers to leave the ports on rails and trucks. 

Based on the dwell times of containers tracked by advanced visibility platform project44, if the importer does not have an expedited transit clause in its contract, the reality of getting its products on the shelves in time for Christmas is slim.

“While these ships wait at anchor, containers that were delivered on time languish at the docks, waiting for their arrival,” explained Josh Brazil, VP of data insights at project44.

In an effort to avoid any port delays, C.H. Robinson began urging customers in April to start ordering their holiday merchandise. C.H. Robinson is not alone in this strategy. SEKO Logistics and the National Retail Federation both informed American Shipper of deploying similar messaging. 

Unfortunately, due to numerous challenges such as raw material shortages, power blackouts in China and shutdowns for COVID, manufacturers were unable to keep up with the advance orders.

“Sometimes we have strapped freight into the cabins of passenger planes to get it here for our customers,” Hoffman said.

C.H. Robinson increased its air charter business from 20 to 22 flights a week to meet the increase in demand.

In today’s sluggish world of trade, logistics managers need to be nimble in creating opportunities.


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Lori Ann LaRocco

Lori Ann LaRocco is senior editor of guests for CNBC business news. She coordinates high profile interviews and special multi-million dollar on-location productions for all shows on the network. Her specialty is in politics, working with titans of industry. LaRocco is the author of: “Trade War: Containers Don’t Lie, Navigating the Bluster” (Marine Money Inc., 2019) “Dynasties of the Sea: The Untold Stories of the Postwar Shipping Pioneers” (Marine Money Inc., 2018), “Opportunity Knocking” (Agate Publishing, 2014), “Dynasties of the Sea: The Ships and Entrepreneurs Who Ushered in the Era of Free Trade” (Marine Money, 2012), and “Thriving in the New Economy: Lessons from Today’s Top Business Minds” (Wiley, 2010).