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Even early birds may go hungry as 2021 holiday shopping poised to be a challenge

Alexis Powell carries a stack of books to the register at The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.

Alexis Powell carries a stack of books to the register at The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Bemoaning the increasingly early arrival of holiday paraphernalia at favorite stores has become an annual grumble for many U.S. shoppers.

But there may be ample cause for dropping the attitude and jumping right into the fray this year as ongoing global supply chain issues, combined with critical domestic labor shortages, could lead to a perfect storm of missing out on 2021 holiday wish list items.

A survey conducted the first week of October by data analyst firm Morning Consult found about 50% of U.S. shoppers had launched early starts to their 2021 holiday shopping, but many of them are already running into challenges finding goods destined for gift wrapping.

Some 51% of early shoppers report stores being out of at least one item they were after, while 54% say a hoped-for product was out of stock online and 49% will have to wait out a back order or delayed delivery on an early purchase.

Morning Consult researchers say supply chain bottlenecks are leading to some product shortages that "will get worse before it gets better," and even well ahead of the traditional holiday shopping kickoff following Thanksgiving, things are heating up.

"Retailers' incentives to shop early are working, pushing consumers to start buying gifts earlier this year," the survey report reads. "But many of those early bird shoppers are already encountering significant supply chain issues.

"As more consumers start their holiday shopping and more stores roll out early Black Friday deals, expect extraordinarily intense pressure to compete on both product price and availability."

Salt Lake independent bookseller King's English is among those businesses urging customers to start shopping early to ensure they have the best shot at ticking the boxes on their holiday gift lists.

King's English co-owner Calvin Crosby said supply chain transportation issues combined with understaffed manufacturing and distribution operations amid national labor shortages is amplifying challenges for retailers in all sectors. For booksellers, he said, publishers and distributors put out notice that on-hand inventories would likely not be replenished until after the holidays, forcing the hands of owners to either stock up early or risk being left with empty shelves during the high-volume holiday shopping season.

"October is the new December," Crosby said. "We've done some really heavy ordering. So much so that it's led to interesting storage challenges for our small store. But, the abundance of inventory is necessary knowing that our options will dwindle later in the season."

Along with the front-loading-as-necessity strategy, Crosby said his store has also launched a companion outreach campaign to get shoppers engaged while selections are at their best.

While individual retailers recompute to navigate product availability issues ahead of what is, for many, the most critical period of sales activity for the entire year, elected officials and business groups scramble to find a fix.

Containers are stacked at the Port of Long Beach in
Long Beach in Calif., Friday, Oct. 1, 2021.
Containers are stacked at the Port of Long Beach in Long Beach in Calif., Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. (Photo: Jae C. Hong, Associated Press)

Last week, President Joe Biden announced changes aiming to expand hours of operation at critical West Coast shipping ports and encouraging national retail chains to increase their own nighttime operations to help ease complex supply chain problems. Those issues first arose amid early COVID-19 restrictions, but have only been exacerbated since then by efforts to catch up on manufacturing and shipping schedules that have been behind for well over a year.

Utah lawmakers at the federal and state level are also grappling with what can be done, and business groups like the Salt Lake Chamber and World Trade Center Utah have formed working groups aimed at finding ways to combine efforts to help Utah businesses, be they exporters or importers of goods, get through the supply chain morass.

While the issues facing retailers and their shoppers are myriad, many economists are predicting 2021 holiday sales volumes will be robust and that earlier-than-usual shopping will be one of the drivers of an upcoming season that could set records.

A new report from Wells Fargo cited a key theme for holiday sales in 2021 — simply put, to be early.

"That is as true for shoppers and retailers as it is for producers and shippers, where Santa's helpers all over the world have been pulling out all the stops to restock depleted inventories despite ongoing supply chain constraints and COVID flare-ups that have kept workers out of factories at times," Wells Fargo analysts wrote. "Despite a backdrop of worsening supply chain problems, still-tight labor markets and ongoing COVID uncertainty, it may yet be another record year for retailers in terms of holiday sales."

The analysis also predicts holiday season sales will be up 10%-13% over last year, which saw sales approach $790 billion in the November-December time period.

The report also notes the item at the top of U.S. consumers' collective wish list is a return to normalcy.

"What everyone really wants this year — more than anything that can be put under a tree — is an end to this wretched pandemic," the report reads. "The number one thing on people's list this year is a return to normal.

"Instead, the timing of the Delta variant and the downward pressure it has put on consumer confidence is coming at an inopportune moment; although, it is not without some offsetting factors. To the extent that COVID restrictions mitigate service sector activity, that could free up money for the goods spending, which is key for holiday sales."

Talitha Day does early holiday shopping at The King’s
English Bookshop in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.
Talitha Day does early holiday shopping at The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Salt Lake resident Talitha Day said she is also looking forward to a post-pandemic world and was in King's English Tuesday afternoon picking up holiday gifts for her kids and grandkids.

Day said she used to start her holiday shopping in late November, but news of ongoing supply chain issues and possible scarcity of some items inspired her to get started early this year.

"My plan this year is absolutely about shopping early," Day said. "I've been hearing about the backlog in store orders and I made King's English my first stop."

Day said she has run into higher prices and limited selection at some of her other holiday shopping stops but was "shocked and excited" to see how much inventory her favorite bookstore had on display.

"I was nervous before coming in but surprised at the variety," Day said. "They ordered early and were ready. Other stores I've been to, not so much."

Zach Galanis shops for his son’s birthday at The King’s
English Bookshop in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.
Zach Galanis shops for his son’s birthday at The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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