YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Few holiday images are as familiar as a train set or a bicycle under a Christmas tree. But this year, recipients might need to settle for a “coming soon” card.
The time-honored Christmas gifts are hard to find because of the supply chain bottleneck that is plaguing the country.
Hobby supplies, including Lionel trains, is one of the main product lines at Andrews Shopping Center in Howland. The problem, owner Harmon Andrews says, is about 90% of the iconic model train brand’s products come from overseas.
“They’re typically slow getting product here but it’s worse this year,” he says.
In Girard, Frankford Bicycle Inc. is restocking inventory. By the end of August, the bicycle shop – which normally stocks between 500 and 700 bikes – had just nine in stock, owner Paul Frankford says. The store is receiving product that it ordered up to a year ago.
“They’ve been on back order that long,” Frankford says. “We’re trying to get everything that we can get our hands on so now when you walk into the store it looks like we’re back in business.”
Andrews’ and Frankford’s situations mirror what retailers of toys for the young are experiencing.
Items ranging from cameras and hand tools to remote-controlled models and clothes are harder to get in stock. The bottleneck begins at sea, with scores of container ships sitting offshore for weeks. But even if the merchandise is unloaded, the truck driver shortage is slowing its arrival in stores.
On Nov. 9, the National Federation of Independent Business’ Small Business Optimism Index found that 39% of owners reported disruptions in the supply chain were having a significant impact on their business. Another 29% reported a moderate impact, 21% a mild impact and 10% none.
In a recent survey of Ohio members, 64% said they were experiencing “moderate to severe supply chain issues,” NFIB Ohio communications director Andy Patterson says.
This leaves local merchants to cope with shortages at their peak season.
Only about 10% to 15% of Frankford’s purchase orders are being filled. Suppliers tell him it could be 12 to 24 months before he receives bikes he has ordered.
“We have bikes on back order right now that are due in spring of 2023. So next year is also going to be a challenging season if things don’t turn around,” he says. “It’s not looking like we’re going to have a good selection of open inventory, though we did find some open inventory yesterday.”
Even with the supply chain issues, area merchants report strong – in some cases unprecedented – sales.
Jim Yankush, president of YM Camera in Boardman, reports his camera shop is enjoying a record year, with sales up 15%. The bulk of increased business is in camera sales, although the affiliated Shutter Skate Shop – a custom skateboard outlet – is growing as well.
Yankush also sees a shift. Where new parents looking for cameras to take pictures of their children previously made up a large number of customers, emphasis has shifted to both professional and amateur wildlife photographers. “The makeup of our customer has changed,” he says.
Hot items such as the Canon R5 and R6 mirrorless models are particularly difficult to get. “We have a ton of them on order and two of them will come in,” he says.
The vast majority of the camera brands he carries – including Nikon, Canon and Sony – are manufactured overseas, he notes. A camera distributor might have 500 orders for a particular camera but have only 20 items to distribute. To stock one or two Canon F2.8 70-200 millimeter zoom lenses, Yankush says, he has to order a dozen.
Sometimes they arrive all at once, and other times they trickle in gradually. Some orders take months to fill.
“The most important thing for us is just having a good relationship with our vendors,” he says. “They have an idea of what the score is, so to speak, so they can help navigate what to order.”
Kevin Stredney, general manager of Handyman Supply of Niles, reports demand is strong in all categories. Many of the new customers the store saw last year – when people stuck at home during lockdowns started home improvement projects – are returning to do more projects as they’ve become more comfortable with their skills.
“They’re asking a lot of questions, which is great for us because we tend to be more able to take the time to explain things to a customer versus some of our competitors,” he adds.
He also concedes disruptions in the supply chain affect Handyman’s ability to keep items on the shelves. If Handyman offers four similar items in a category, one or two might be experiencing issues. Hand tools sell out quickly and are difficult to replace.
“To be honest, it’s hit and miss across the board,” he says.
Like Frankford, Tom Metts, owner of Boardman Hobby Center in Boardman, is working to restock inventory.
Metts has owned the shop – which carries models, remote-controlled vehicles and other hobby supplies – for 55 years. Last year, when he reopened after being closed for about three months because of the pandemic, all of his RC inventory was gone within a week.
“I foresee a big problem coming because I’m having big problems getting things,” he says. To overcome potential shortages, he is ordering more inventory than he normally would. But he points out his merchandise isn’t perishable. “It’ll be sold at some point,” Metts says.
Like YM Camera, Boardman Hobby imports much of its inventory. Probably 95% of what the store carries comes from China, Metts estimates.
“When you’ve got boats sitting on the ocean for six or eight weeks, it’s not good,” he says.
At Andrews Shopping Center, the owner says sales are good but “back to earth.” The store remained open through the pandemic because it was deemed an essential business, which contributed to a 24% increase last year over the year before. Sales this year are more comparable to 2019’s, although revenue is up in part because of inflation.
Andrews says he was getting five pages of cancellations each week on hardware orders at one point during the pandemic, then things began to improve to just three pages of cancellations. Now the situation is worse than before, with about 6½ pages of canceled items each week out of a 16-page order. “What has been out is consistently out,” he says.
All American Cards & Comics, which has shops in Warren and Boardman, is having its best year in terms of gross sales, owner Greg Bartholomew reports. He attributes most of this year’s growth to Pokemon card sales as well as other card games. Sales of comic book back issues also are up.
The shop – which also sells new comic books, board and role-playing games and related merchandise such as action figures and Funko Pop figures – is also coping with supply issues, although not in its core categories.
With the changes in the distribution system, the shops have seen delays of a few days in the shipments of new comic books that are delivered weekly. Bartholomew’s main issue, however, is getting associated supplies. Products like Mylar bags and cardboard backing boards for comic books, long and short boxes for book storage and sleeves for trading cards are hard to come by.
“We just can’t get them in,” he laments. “It’s a nationwide shortage.”
Tight supply chains have also led to price hikes, the retailers acknowledge.
“We have had massive price increases all year,” Frankford says. One of his suppliers had four price increases during the past 11 months.
Prices for collectibles supplies prices have risen 50% because of the scarcity, Bartholomew says.
“It hurts us too,” he points out.
The retailers say they are finding ways to cope and customers generally are being understanding.
“We’re going into the second year of having supply issues. So most of them just understand the way things are in the environment,” Handyman’s Stredney says. “Most of them are willing to wait.”
People are used to shortages now, Yankush agrees. They will go online and find out that everyone is experiencing shortages on the items they are looking for.
“I don’t really get a lot of pushback,” he says. As bad as a customer wants to buy a $5,000 camera, “I want to sell it that bad,” he says.
Pictured at top: Lionel trains, a top product at Andrews Shopping Center, are hard to come by, says Harmon Andrews.