The furniture giant Ikea is known for flattening tables, chairs and even beds into compact bundles that can be lugged home in car trunks and pickup beds.
Now its executives are using that expertise to squeeze as many seasonal offerings as possible into massive metal boxes for ocean transport. They prioritized lightweight and pliable — pillows and throws, wine glasses and plates — and holiday perennials like children’s easels and toys, said Javier Quiñones, chief executive of Ikea U.S. The desks, chairs and home office accessories that were big sellers early in the pandemic are on the back burner until next year.
“It’s a calculation,” he said. “What is it that we need right now?”
The shipping container, once an ordinary cog in the global supply chain, has become a coveted and expensive lifeline for the nation’s retailers and manufacturers. They are in such short supply that companies are having to rethink how they stock shelves, placing a premium on smaller, more compact merchandise: squishy toys, headphones and slippers instead of, say, play kitchens, televisions and hiking boots.
Some companies are even going as far as shrinking toy packages by 30% to save on costs.
To maximize every cubic inch of these 40-foot boxes, retailers and freight companies must master a math exercise with a dizzying array of answers, whether that’s two pickup trucks, 500 artificial Christmas trees or 80,000 Pop It fidget toys.
“Call it the Jenga supply chain,” said Suketu Gandhi, global leader for digital supply chain at the consulting firm Kearney. “Without shipping containers, the whole thing tumbles.”
The container shortage, economists say, is a byproduct of the pandemic. Coronavirus-related shutdowns disrupted the global movement of freight while boosting demand for consumer goods. Nearly 26 million 20-foot containers’ worth of goods are expected to arrive in the United States this year, up 18% from a year ago, according to the National Retail Federation’s Global Port Tracker. Meanwhile, the scarcity of workers to load and unload at ports and warehouses, as well as truck drivers to transport them, has stranded millions of containers.
But the remedy isn’t as simple as just churning out more containers, shipping experts say, because the shortage is closely intertwined with business and border closures, as well as labor shortages and fundamental shifts in the economy.
Container manufacturers, mostly concentrated in China, are expected to churn out 5.4 million new containers this year, about double their pre-pandemic output, according to Drewry Shipping Consultants. But those efforts are being hampered by shortages in raw materials, such as steel and lumber, as well as welders. The manufacturing process can be long and costly, too: Each container takes about two years and $100,000 to make, according to Niels Larsen, president of DSV Air & Sea North America, a global transport and logistics firm.
As a result, the some of the world’s biggest retailers, like Ikea, are acquiring their own containers. Many others, including Walmart, Target, Home Depot and Costco, are chartering ships to get high-priority goods in on time.
The White House last week announced measures to boost capacity at U.S. ports, including Long Beach and Los Angeles, but retailers say those efforts will do little to help this holiday season.
Magi Raible, owner of LiteGear Bags in California, spends weeks, sometimes months, scouting out shipping containers to ferry her merchandise from China to the United States. When she does secure one, she’s become strategic about what she packs inside: Ponchos instead of suitcases, tote bags instead of carry-ons.
Shipping costs quickly add up, even for the most compact items. Ponchos, for example, now cost $5 apiece to transport, compared with 50 cents a year ago, she said.
“When you go from $2,000 per container to $20,000, the math just doesn’t work anymore for big, bulky things,” she said. “I’ve had to leave behind some popular items because it’s just too expensive to ship right now.”
What goes inside has become a carefully choreographed calculation of a product’s size, demand and cost.
Stanley Black & Decker is giving DeWalt impact drivers and batteries priority over miter saws and hedge trimmers because “they’re easier to pack and you can really get a lot of them in there,” said Guru Bandekar, the company’s chief supply chain officer for global tools and storage.
Certain stores are going big on holiday decor and Christmas advent calendars that would otherwise be stashed in storage until next year. Analysts say electronics makers, which have been hard-pressed to import enough big-screen TVs and appliances, are increasingly stocking up on smaller gifts like headphones and tablets.
Specialty toymaker Manhattan Toy Co. is zeroing in on its best-selling and most profitable items, such as Baby Stella plush dolls, Winkel plastic teething toys and lightweight Skwish rattles, according to the company’s president, Nora O’Leary. Larger wooden toys will have to wait until next year.
Even then, orders are at the whim of the supply chain. At least one container of toys has been sitting on a dock in Los Angeles since September, she said. Another, filled with the company’s Rock ‘n Roary dinosaur rocker, was on a boat that caught fire last month off the coast of Vancouver, B.C.
“We’re packing containers with products that we know are going to sell,” O’Leary said. “When freight costs six or seven times what it did a year ago, you can’t take risks on new designs.”
The modern-day shipping container was conceived 65 years ago by American entrepreneur Malcolm McLean as a way to quickly move goods from trucks onto ships and back again. Before that, longshoremen had to load ships by hand, which was a long and costly process, said Willy Shih, a professor of supply chain management at Harvard Business School.
“Shipping containers have revolutionized global trade,” he said. “They’ve become the backbone of our economy — not only for transporting dry goods like washing machines and shoes, but also strawberries and grains and frozen food.”
But, he said, a growing trade imbalance — in which the United States imports more from Asia than it exports — has exacerbated an already tricky dynamic. Ships that bring in goods are often stuck for weeks or months waiting to be unloaded at U.S. ports, rail yards and factories. And pandemic-related shutdowns and delays that began in early 2020 are adding to the strain.
“The world economy is still trying to catch up after it essentially paused during the heart of the pandemic,” said Seiji Steimetz, chair of the economics department at California State University at Long Beach. “There are more imports coming into this country than ever before, which is stressing the entire supply chain.”
The United States imported $47.4 billion in goods from China in September, a 15% increase from the same period a year ago and 18% higher than 2019, while exports to China fell to a seven-month low, according to Commerce Department data.
The pandemic, Steimetz said, ushered in changes in the way people shop. More Americans are buying online from companies like Amazon, Walmart and Target, which lean heavily on imports. COVID-related restrictions that kept families closer to home led to more spending on goods and less on services. Sales of new homes, cars and toys have all surged during the pandemic as consumers threw fewer dollars at hotels, restaurants and bars.
Sky Castle Toys President Joshua Loerzel says retailers have been asking for toys with smaller footprints for easier ocean transport. So he recently shrank the packaging of his LetsGlow Studio by 20%. Now he can fit 11,900 of the fashion craft kits into a 40-foot container instead of 8,700.
Such downsizing goes against every convention in the toy industry, where bigger has always been better, he said. But now, instead of trying to grab consumers’ attention with large, flashy packaging, the focus is on getting toys on shelves.
“When you only get limited bookings, it becomes all about the smaller products that you can pack in,” he said. “Numbers one through five on my list to Santa? Shipping containers.”