Before Santa arrives with a sleigh full of toys and gifts manufactured in Asia, kids of all ages will be dressing up for Halloween and adults will be decorating their homes. Halloween is among the most popular holidays in America, so the horrific congestion this year is no treat for the nation’s supply chain. One retailer that relies solely on this holiday for its revenues is Spencer’s pop-up stores, Spirit Halloween.

Taking a historic look at the Spirit Halloween shipping volumes, the delays created by the COVID pandemic can be clearly tracked. The onslaught of containers in July and August shows how late the items are arriving at customs.

American Shipper, in collaboration with ImportGenius and MarineTraffic, dove into the sea of trade data and selected four voyages from the Port of Yantian to the U.S. from the company’s bills of lading and customs information. To compare the delays on both coasts, two vessels were destined for the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach, the other two intended for Savannah, Georgia. 

“Based on the trade data, Ningbo and Yantian are the major exporting ports for Spirit Halloween,” explained William George, analyst at Import Genius. “Unfortunately, these two ports have been impacted by the delta variant creating delays.”

For seasonal retailers, such as Spirit Halloween, these delays could impact an already small window of in-store retail opportunity. What 2021 has shown all logistics managers is that even those with the best planning cannot shield their supply chains from port closures and the snail’s pace of port container processing.

“Like most retailers, Spirit experienced delays of select inventory — notably our highly popular animatronics line,” said Michael Preston, media officer of Spencer Gifts. “But we still anticipate our retail locations being stocked with the most dynamic selection of costumes, décor, animatronics and more in time to celebrate the Halloween weekend.”

Using AIS technology to plot the voyage of the CMA CGM Amerigo Vespucci, MarineTraffic found it arrived at the Port of Yantian on May 10. Sixty-four twenty-foot equivalent units were then loaded. On May 12, the Amerigo Vespucci departed for the Port of Long Beach.

It arrived on May 30 and anchored. On June 4, it headed directly to berth and docked for eight days before departing on June 12 destined for Qingdao.

The total transit time was 34 days from port to port — 14 of those days were spent in the Port of Long Beach.

“Time is the most valuable commodity for an importer,” added Capt. Adil Ashiq, MarineTraffic’s executive for the North American west coast. “The juggernaut of congestion is the U.S. port. Once a vessel is delayed because of congestion, it throws off the entire global schedule for the vessel. This, of course, is only the port delay. We are not even talking about the massive delays importers are seeing with truck and rail.”

Fast forward to July and example No. 2, the CMA CGM Chile. It arrived at the Port of Yantian on July 16.  Even though it was months after the May partial closure of the Yantian port, the damage was done. Congestion plagued the system with an artificial tsunami of vessels and containers.

The Chile was loaded with 98 TEUs filled with items such as inflatable costumes — for example, this inflatable dragon costume.

According to ImportGenius, this voyage had the most TEUs during the tracked timeline. Black lights, tombstones, skeleton fences and low-lying coffin fog machines were also on the vessel.

“There was also a huge amount of various animatronics shipped by Crazy Create Limited which simply specify ‘Life Sized,’” said George. “There were 3,274 units of animatronics on the boat.”

The Chile departed with the Halloween goodies on July 17.

The vessel reached Long Beach and anchored on Aug. 3. Nine days later, it docked and remained at port until Aug. 21. Its destination? Yantian with a reported ETA of Sept. 5.

The total transit time for the Chile was 37 days port to port. The difference between the two voyages was three days. A three-day difference may not seem like a lot, but in the world of logistics, every day counts.

“The impact of the Yantian closure and reopening can clearly be seen with this transit time,” said Ashiq. “COVID shutdowns are now becoming commonplace, and while the reduction in containers relieves volumes temporarily for ports to process containers, it’s only delaying the onslaught. Another wave of congestion is just around the corner. The U.S. supply chain is on a merry-go ride of congestion.”

Unfortunately, the port delays are just the first leg of delays for American importers. The loading or transloading of their cargo is a nightmare. What would take days to complete in the continental United States before COVID-19 now takes months. Explanations of supply chain slowdowns are normal for company earnings calls. Email sent to consumers informing of delays in order shipments is another example of what is viewed as normal.

What is also normal are the tremendous volumes. SONAR’s TEU volume index shows the swell of containers will continue. In the next seven days, it is set to surpass 281 index points, which is nearly a record high for the index (indexed to Jan. 1, 2019, with a baseline of 100).

For an East Coast perspective of Spencer’s imports, American Shipper looked at the Port of Savannah. Over the past several months, this port has seen a pop in volumes, making it the No. 2 port of destination of the company.

On May 8, the Cosco Shipping Camellia arrived at the Port of Yantian and was loaded with 56 TEUs. It departed for Savannah on May 9.

The vessel then left for Xiamen, Shanghai, traveling through the Panama Canal, Colon and New York, and arriving in Savannah on June 19. It was anchored until June 24, docked early in the morning the next day and was at berth for two days. Total transit time: 43 days, with six days at anchor.

In June, the YM Width carried 10 TEUs from Yantian to Savannah. It arrived at Yantian on June 23, departing on June 25.  It left for Vietnam, Singapore and traveled through the Suez Canal without delay. The Width made stops at the ports of New York and Norfolk, Virginia, before arriving at Savannah on Aug. 9 and anchoring. It docked on Aug. 14 and departed two days later for Charleston. Total transit time: 55 days.

The increase in container volumes in Savannah can clearly be seen between the months of June and August. This propelled Savannah ahead of Long Beach.

“While Spencer’s is massively reliant on Los Angeles, you can see the TEU shift to Savannah away from Long Beach. This of course has added to overwhelming volume in August contributing to port delays,” said George.

MarineTraffic broke down the port delays.

“In Savannah, we saw by week 28, there was an increase of anchorage wait times from null to 1.1 days,” said Ashiq. “In week 29, there were 4.4 days, in week 30 we saw 3.5 days and now null. There are approximately 11 vessels headed towards Savannah in the next two weeks,  so we may see an increase — but with the turnaround times at dock being roughly 1.1 days, it is unlikely to increase dramatically.” 

Trade data shows the company’s optimistic outlook on the holiday.

“Spencer Gifts’ import volume shows that they were preparing for an enormous Halloween season,” explained George. “August import volume was nearly the size of their 2017 season high. But [with] the heavy reliance on LA/Long Beach and delays continuing to mount, Spencer’s may be hard-pressed to keep shelves and online supplies stocked as we enter peak Halloween season.”

Despite the headwinds, Spencer’s is optimistic about meeting its delivery windows.

“We are working closely with supply chain partners and our logistics and operations teams across the country to explore every available option in order to expedite shipments and provide our fans the full range of Halloween items they come to expect — at no additional cost to customers,” said Preston.

This tale of the containers is just a sliver of the larger maritime mess facing logistics managers. The aphorism “time is money” found in Ben Franklin’s short essay “Advice to a Young Tradesman” works perfectly here. Efficiency is indeed the key to logistical success. 

Unfortunately, the cost of COVID congestion is only adding to the stress of logistics managers instead of lining the coffers.

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