A gift giver’s guide to supply chain shortages this holiday season

6 tips to prevent the end-of-year festivities from being a total mess.
holiday gifts wrapped in brown paper with pine needles

Your favorite online retailer may not be this good at wrapping presents, though. Ylanite Koppens / Unsplash

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Unlike 2020, this year many of us will be able to see our families for the holidays. But we may not come bearing gifts, as the supply chain crisis will make it hard to get the products we want. And even if you’re lucky enough to get them, delivery times might make it difficult for your items to make it in time for the festivities. 

But instead of gambling on properly stocked shelves and short delivery times, you can take measures to get what you want when you want it.

What happened to the supply chain?

Since the 1990s, a process called just-in-time has driven the manufacturing of most of the stuff we buy. In it, all the stages in the operation are synchronized to meet demand. This assures that the parts to make a product show up right when the assembly line starts, and completed items ship out to the stores right when sellers need them.

This prevents storage availability from limiting manufacturers, allowing them to make more and better stuff for less money, and get it all on the shelves faster and more efficiently. But like any tightly networked system, one delay cascades through and can ruin everything. And the pandemic has caused not one, but thousands of those.

[Related: Will supply chain issues affect the books you want? Depends on what you’re reading.]

“With shortages of many key components for manufacturers as well as labor shortages—or stoppages—in the global market due to COVID, retailers are facing a variety of different headwinds across different fronts. The products they want to sell will likely be unavailable,” says Carlos Castelán, managing director of retail management consulting firm, The Navio Group.  

This has hit some products harder than others, especially those that have been in short supply since the beginning of the pandemic, like bikes and electronic devices.

“Any products made overseas, or that require raw materials from overseas are affected. The more complex the supply chain, the higher the likelihood that the product will be impacted,” says Aaron Rubin, CEO of ShipHero, a company that handles shipping for thousands of eCommerce vendors.

There will be some products—just not too many 

In most cases, the problem is not bare shelves, just less stocked ones. For example, Apple said the semiconductor shortage has reduced the number of iPhones it can make by 10 percent. This may sound like a lot, but the company is still predicting it’ll get 80 million units out there in time for the holidays. 

Imported goods like consumer electronics, activewear, and mass-produced toys, are more likely to see a squeeze. If those aren’t on your list, then you’ve got less to worry about. 

Shop early

Historically, most of us don’t get around to holiday shopping until after Thanksgiving. This is generally not a problem, but it might be this year, as stores flood with shoppers right after the turkey’s finished. This year, start early and save yourself some trouble. The extra time will also come in handy, as delivery times will be longer than usual.

Shopping before this date also helps stores and other customers, as forgoing the rush will result in retailers getting less slammed post-Turkey Day. Not to mention fewer people going to stores, means less COVID risk for everyone involved. 

Don’t count on sales

Expect fewer sales or no sales at all, says Bryan Palma of supply chain management firm Kinaxis. This will affect not just what’s on the shelves, but those discounts you may be counting on. 

“Retailers and manufacturers may not have the inventory to support promotions,” he explains. “Forgoing promotions not only will keep products in stock longer but also help recoup the costs of supply chain disruptions.” 

This is true even for products whose sales have been down during the pandemic, like smartphones.

Plan in advance

List out who you’re shopping for, and what they’re getting, even if it’s only a vague idea. This will focus your shopping, helping you find what’s available and saving time for those really hard-to-find items.

It’s also a good idea to have backup options ready as well. This is especially true for products that have been hot during the pandemic, like game consoles and bikes, as there’s no end in sight for those particular shortages. 

Buy local when possible

Get unique presents by digging into your local craft and maker scene. Local businesses, especially ones that source domestically, are less likely to run into supply chain issues. 

If you are looking for something extremely specific, Brooke Welty, who runs the art shop Atavism Idols out of Gloucester, MA, encourages going to Instagram. ”It’s the best place to look because you can get pretty specific with hashtags, and anything that gets more eyeballs on a small artist’s work is a good thing,” she says.

Welty also notes that if you want something custom, the sooner you commission it, the better, as makers have limited time to put unique pieces together.

Use gift cards

Once the holidays are over, around 13 percent of all presents head straight back to the store. Save everyone some trouble and consider giving a gift card. If you want, you can compensate by putting effort into the wrapping—a nice box and a handmade card are always great ideas.

[Related: Understanding the global chip shortage, a big crisis involving tiny components]

Also, look beyond the usual Amazon and app store gift cards. Cards for places that fit into your recipient’s daily routine, like their favorite coffee place or their preferred gas station, are thoughtful and more likely to be used.

Ship directly

The best way to speed up any process is to reduce and consolidate steps. If you’re concerned about shipping delays, delivering directly to your loved ones will raise the odds of it getting there on time. Plus, most online retailers will be happy to wrap gifts for you.

Shipping as early as possible will also guarantee it gets there on time. Mail networks are facing the same labor and time strains as other shipping services, so getting a gift in the mail early can help you save the holidays.