Julia Moser typically waits to do her shopping until the eleventh hour, but this year, Moser said she found herself struck with a case of the “supply chain scaries,” a quite contagious fear that the normal flow of goods into stores where we can buy them has been completely gummed up thanks to effects of the pandemic. So this time, she ordered her boyfriend’s Christmas gift in mid-October. The gift? An iSi whipper. (Ever had whipped cream fancily dispensed atop your drink at Starbucks? That can is an iSi whipper.) “He’s very into cocktail making,” Moser said. “Apparently you can use it to infuse all sorts of things for cocktail ingredients. I was like ‘that’s exactly the kind of thing that would get delayed at the port.’ ” Except it didn’t. It didn’t even take the projected shipping time when she placed her order. It came the very next day.
“I usually wait until the last minute,” Moser, who lives in Los Angeles said. But over the summer she was “extremely online and seeing everyone saying, ‘GET YOUR GIFTS NOW!’” Despite besting the supply chain, though, Moser now has a different problem on her hands. What to do with a gift that arrived that early? “I was too impatient to store it for another few months so I just gave it to him and now I have to think of another present to get him for actual Christmas,” she said.
Supply chain horror stories are everywhere as the holidays loom. “How the Global Supply Chain Might Ruin Christmas,” the New York Times grimly forecasted in October. “Christmas Lights Need a Supply Chain Miracle,” my colleague Aaron Mak wrote the same month. Reports indicate you can expect to pay more for everything from your balsam fir tree to your Thanksgiving turkey. Shipping ports are historically backed up and, on the other end, factories in Asia where most of what Americans are buying is coming from, are subject to more frequent shut downs due to COVID outbreaks. And lest you think, “I’ll just shop in store and avoid possible shipping delays,” the shelves you’ll find are likely to be more barren than usual, thanks to, well, more shipping delays and a nation-wide worker shortage. No wonder people are finding themselves suddenly motivated to break lifelong procrastination traditions and get their shopping done early. Fear of failure, as it turns out, is a pretty good motivator when it comes to Christmas gift giving. I’ve already received my first Christmas card this year, well before even Thanksgiving. It was from a college friend who said her wife was too nervous about delays to wait until a seasonally appropriate time to order their cards.
But having those gifts arrive ready for wrapping so far ahead of schedule poses the storage issue that Moser evaded by handing the whipper over right away. “I’ve heard toys will be especially impacted this year, so I’m getting gifts for our 2½-year-old early and stashing them in closets,” Alisa Richter said. She described herself as a person who rarely shops early, “except for maybe custom gifts from Etsy.” Fortunately for her, she now lives in a house with more room for stowing away secret gifts than her previous apartment. Kat Spada still lives in an apartment, but moved to a larger one while in the middle of early-ordering holiday gifts, “so now there’s a large pile of boxes” in addition to the usual moving mess. Hillary Kelly is already done shopping for her 4-year-old’s Christmas gifts, a move largely motivated by supply chain worries. “I don’t care if my kid gets less this year—she doesn’t need a ton of stuff,” Kelly said. “But I didn’t want to be sitting around on the 24th hoping things would arrive.” Her daughter’s presents are currently wrapped in sweaters in the back of Kelly’s closet. “I keep waiting for her to find them,” she said.
So how can us poor gift purchasers really know what will languish on container ships for weeks, and what will land on the stoop tomorrow? The most important factor, according to Emphraim Ausch, chief logistics officer at Tactical Logistics Solutions, is where in the supply chain your gifts are when you order them. But that’s not always something you can assess when you’re clicking “add to cart.” If the item is in stock (and the store isn’t lying) and is already in the country, you’re probably good to go. “Once your item is in the United States, you’re fine,” says Ausch. “UPS, FedEx, USPS, they have capacity issues, yes, but not to the point where you have to wait a month or two.” He confirms that backup at ports like Los Angeles is the major issue for holiday shopping. Getting products off cargo ships and into delivery trucks used to be a process that took days. Now that most ideal version of that timeline looks more like weeks. Early shoppers getting gifts delivered promptly, Ausch says, are likely ordering things that just happened to already be in stock and ready to go. Not everyone who orders later will be so lucky.
The early-orderers may not always feel so charmed as they try to manage closet space and surprise UPS deliveries. Alyssa L., who asked that her full name not be used, said she usually first gets just “a couple of early gifts, and then the majority after Thanksgiving.” Alyssa’s job in book publishing, however, gave her a front-row seat to shipping and production issues this year. “The supply chain issues are real! That definitely played into it this year—I only have one or two gifts left to buy at this point,” she said. And, naturally, everything she ordered early came “super prompt.” She and her partner have been texting each other warnings on certain days not to check the mail … because they’d both ordered gifts for each other that had come quicker than planned.
If it’s any comfort to the rest of us, Ausch says that many retailers have been preparing for this holiday bottleneck for months. He works with a client that specializes in fake Christmas trees who began stepping up their cargo container shipping in June. The Port of Los Angeles is now open 24 hours a day in an attempt to alleviate backlog. (It was previously operating 18 hours per day and Ausch says he’s not optimistic the extra six hours will be the miracle the industry needs.) His advice for consumers is to not dawdle if you see something you know you plan to buy is in stock. Even if it means having to find extra hiding places around the house.
My own version of Moser’s iSi canister was a pre-lit faux-pine garland for my fireplace mantle—though technically, it’s a gift for myself. Last year, I decided to go full Martha Stewart and make my own out of real boughs and while my living room smelled great over Christmas I am still vacuuming up needles nearly a year later. So in early October, I found a nice, fake garland and pressed order. The confirmation said it would arrive after Thanksgiving. Perfect, I thought to myself, I don’t have anywhere to store this thing anyway. It arrived the very next day. I’m staring at the box as I write this.