Experts Agree: Get Your Holiday Shopping Done ASAP

Supply chain woes mean deliveries—from FedEx, UPS, USPS, or Santa—might be delayed this year

Person with shopping bags Photo: Getty Images

Karen Kelly Grasso, 56, of Ohio says she started her Christmas shopping this year “a bit early.” By a bit early, she says, she means June, to avoid a situation like last year, when she waited until later in the holiday season to shop and then “got stuck” with less-than-ideal options. “I filled in a lot of blanks with gift cards and what I will call ‘what I could get’ stuff. My grandson and granddaughter got a lot of the craft closet wrapped up and packaged,” she says. 

Experts say all holiday shoppers would be wise to get a head start on their holiday shopping this year. Escalating supply chain disruptions will delay the arrival of presents—if you can get them at all. “If you don’t order stuff ahead of time, you may not have it,” says Yossi Sheffi, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Transportation and Logistics. “We always see those pictures of people who are going two days before Christmas to do their Christmas shopping. Those people will be out of luck.”

Your Holiday Gift Is Currently Stuck In Long Beach, Calif.

There are numerous factors contributing to the supply chain disruptions, according to Linda Dunn, an assistant professor of supply chain management at Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies. People are shopping more as their finances improve—total retail sales have increased 28 percent from the second quarter of 2020 to 2021, according to an August statement from the U.S. Census Bureau.

But there’s not enough supply to meet the demand, in part because of lockdowns in Asia that have shut down production, Dunn says. Port congestion in the U.S., a lack of warehouse space and shipping containers, a massive labor shortage of truckers and warehouse workers, a scarcity of semiconductor chips, and power outages in China have all contributed to the current disruptions. “The situation is not easy to solve,” she says, and all these problems have been “years in the making.” 

More on Holiday Shopping

Large retailers are going to great—and expensive—lengths to get products on store shelves in time for Black Friday. For instance, Target and Walmart, as well as other retailers, are chartering their own ships to ensure that they have adequate space for their products and can avoid additional stops. Privately chartered ships can also often use a secondary cargo port, bypassing backed-up ports like Los Angeles and Long Beach, where dozens of ships at a time can wait to be unloaded.

Although the strategy may help ensure that products reach stores more quickly and reliably, companies are paying mightily for the privilege, says Kyle D. Cattani, a professor of operations management at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. Some retailers will respond by passing these costs on to consumers.

In an attempt to alleviate some of these problems in the run-up to the holiday crunch, President Joe Biden announced that the Port of Los Angeles would begin to operate around the clock. Steven Carnovale, an assistant professor of supply chain management at the Saunders College of Business at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, says the increased hours are a step in the right direction, but “the sticking point may be labor shortages, which have been pervasive in the logistics industry.” 

Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst at Forrester, a market research firm, agrees that persistent labor shortages will continue to slow product deliveries, despite the extended port hours. “More hours at the ports help somewhat, but the whole supply chain—factories, trucks, warehouses—are all understaffed now,” she says.

How to Get the Gifts You Want

In spite of the measures retailers are taking, experts say some products will be particularly difficult to purchase this year. “Electronics are going to be more challenging to get because of the microchip shortage,” Carnovale says. “If you look at children’s toys, they’re increasingly getting more technologically robust—they have more chips in them.” Televisions could also be issue, Carnovale says, adding that the shortage of display and processing chips could limit the selection of TVs on store shelves this holiday season.

But it’s not just products with chips that could be in short supply. As Consumer Reports recently reported, even artificial Christmas trees and other items made from plastic may be tough to locate. 

Shop Early
Every expert Consumer Reports spoke to for this article advised shopping early. “Definitely don’t wait, like I normally do, until Dec. 23 to do your shopping, or everybody’s going to be getting hand towels and last year’s Christmas candle from Yankee Candle,” Carnovale says. And expect to pay more, Dunn says, because consumer prices jumped 5.4 percent in September from the same period last year. Consumers who wait may have to turn to resellers, Dunn says, and could end up paying even more as a result.

Shop Local and Be Flexible
Shopping locally and remaining flexible about what you give and get this year—and when they arrive—will be key. Many retailers, such as Best Buy, hope to encourage earlier purchases with extensive Black Friday deals that run beyond merely the day after Thanksgiving. Walmart will have Black Friday sales throughout November, and will be offering early shopping times to Walmart+ members. Target is responding to competitors with its Holiday Price Match Guarantee; the retailer will price-match other stores’ lower prices within 14 days of purchase, and will also offer partial refunds if consumers purchase an item at Target that drops in price later in the season. Amazon is also offering extensive deals across the board.

Still, diverse products and commodities, from coffee to tennis balls, are increasingly difficult to find, and a “return to normal” might not be in the cards for the foreseeable future. “My best guess would be that the normal we used to experience will not be what we see in the future,” Carnovale says. “Do I think we’re going to go back to the days of catalog ordering where it’s four to six weeks? That’s unlikely. But I think one-day, two-day delivery outside of large metro areas is probably something of the past.” 

Cattani recommends considering homemade items, while Carnovale says nobody turns down cold, hard cash. While frustrating, the situation could be a learning experience for your child, too. 

“If your kids want the pink sneakers, make sure that red sneakers are not going to send them into a depression,” says Sheffi at MIT. “Just be flexible. Order early. There’s not much else that you can do.”