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Supply chain problems stack up for Bloomington-Normal retailers

Shipping containers are stacked high at the Port of Los Angeles in April. Supply chain disruptions are hitting small-business owners across the United States.
Frederic J. Brown
AFP via Getty Images
Shipping containers are stacked high at the Port of Los Angeles in April. Supply chain disruptions are hitting small-business owners across the United States.

From computer chips, to Grape Nuts, to Thanksgiving turkeys, it seems like everything is in short supply these days.

The mounting supply chain crisis is perhaps best summed up by the sight of shipping containers trapped in southern California ports. But are those problems having an effect on retailers here?

“Yes. Oh, my goodness, yes,” said Sarah McManus, who co-owns the Garlic Press in Uptown Normal. And for her, those containers waiting to be unloaded and delivered represent all kinds of problems.

“Where do I begin?” McManus said. Delays and other shipping issues are forcing the vendors McManus works with to raise their prices, and the last thing she wants to do is raise prices for her customers in response. But with costs rising exponentially along the supply change, keeping prices low can be a challenge.

Many of McManus’ vendors have told her that that cargo containers used to cost around $1,000 to fill and ship overseas.

“Now they’re saying they’re easily $10,000 or more,” McManus said.

The supply chain crisis has revealed just how interconnected the global marketplace has become. From design, to production, to delivery, the goods we depend on often travel the globe before ending up on doorsteps or store shelves. One kink in that global chain set off disruptions down the entire line.

Even a quintessentially local company like Beer Nutsis seeing delays. The company has been manufacturing its namesake nuts in Bloomington since the mid-1950s. President Andy Shirk said while they don’t import much, Beer Nuts does rely on other parts of the world for some things that are critical to production – like cashews, which are imported from Vietnam.

Shirk said delays have trickled down to even the smallest elements of operation.

“The funny one I always bring up is s-hooks,” he said. The small metal hooks are used to clip bags of nuts to display racks in stores. They’re the kind of little things that don’t draw much attention about until they become scarce, which they officially are, Shirk said.

A scarcity of small things is a problem for McManus, too. At the Garlic Press, they’ve seen huge price increases to wrapping paper, tissue, and ribbon. McManus considers beautiful giftwrapping part of the Garlic Press brand. And no matter the cost, she’s unwilling to scale back on those flourishes.

“I can’t be chintzy and just use a little bit of ribbon,” she said.

Aside from the rising costs, retailers are facing uncertainty in the delivery of goods and supplies. McManus is often left not knowing when – or if – an order will arrive. Place an order for 100 items, she said, and you’re lucky to get half of it.

That's assuming that order arrives at all. Many vendors are placing items on backorder, which means that orders can arrive months after they were placed. McManus got in a shipment of cherry pitters two months after cherry season ended. The same thing happened with corn shuckers that arrived just in time for...fall.

“And so now I have those six corn shucker things. Money, just sitting on a shelf until next year because they came in way too late,” she said.

So, for now, McManus is playing it extra safe in deciding what to order.

“We’re not stocking up on, you know, chartreuse pigs,” she said. Instead, she’s focusing on classic items that have the best chance of selling.

When it comes to best sellers – especially around the holidays – there’s probably no more reliable item than toys. Kate Greene, co-owner of the Gingerbread Housein Bloomington, said when it comes to supply chain pileups, not even teddy bears are safe.

“We hear stories about toys being on boats sitting outside of docks waiting to get in and they’ve been out there for months,” Greene said.

But don’t worry, Greene said. For now, the Gingerbread House is all stocked up on toys. That could change, however, as nervous shoppers rush to check things off their holiday lists. Greene said early shopping has definitely emerged as the “big trend” this year.

“It is full-blown Christmas here at the store,” she said.

And while the idea of full-blown Christmas may be a little hard to swallow while most of us still have pumpkins on the porch, Greene said this may be the year to start shopping a little early.

“Especially if it’s something you really wanted, I would not wait,” she said.

Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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