Clothes Shoppers Are About to Realize Just How Messed Up Shipping Has Become

Date: Monday, April 12th, 2021
Source: Wall Street Journal

Armed with vaccines and pockets full of savings, Americans will soon be in the mood to shop for some new clothes. There’s just one problem: Port congestion and snarled shipping since last year means store racks could have less selection or even—gasp!—last year’s fashions.

Consumers across the board have more in their savings accounts after a year of spending less on travel, entertainment and restaurants and receiving three rounds of stimulus checks. Many are eager to spend on experiences they were deprived of during the pandemic, but they also have their eyes set on refreshing their wardrobes. In a recent survey conducted by Jefferies, when consumers were asked what category they would like to spend discretionary dollars on once the pandemic subsides, clothing and accessories came second behind bars, restaurants and pubs. Shoppers are already returning in healthy numbers: Same-store foot traffic at apparel and accessories retailers fully recovered to 2019 levels in the last week of March, according to data from ShopperTrak and Citi.

As they hit the mall, it is possible that consumers might not find what they want or will face steeper price tags. The Suez Canal blockage, which held up shipping traffic for six days, may have been an eye-catching moment for casual observers, but for the retail industry it was just the latest global supply chain headache. Delays began last year as retailers and manufacturers tried to rebuild inventories depleted in the beginning of the pandemic.

The rush of orders, combined with an increase in workers taking sick days amid the pandemic, has backed up America’s ports. At the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which together handle more than a third of U.S. container imports, ships have often had to anchor offshore for days waiting their turn to unload. Once their containers are ashore, they often sit for days more waiting for handling.

In a National Retail Federation survey conducted in March before the Suez Canal blockage, 98% of surveyed retailers said they had been impacted by port or other shipping-related delays. More than half the respondents said congestion was adding at least three weeks to their supply chains.

Retailers’ in-stock levels are at a record low—a sharp contrast with last April when their inventory-to-sales ratio spiked after pandemic-induced lockdowns. That ratio quickly dropped as retailers reopened, but they also canceled or postponed orders to adjust. Then, when retailers collectively started stocking up their inventory for the holiday season, port congestion issues compounded the shortage. As of January, retail stores had enough inventory to cover just over a month of sales—a record low. In their most recently reported fiscal quarters, Macy’s and Kohl’s inventory levels were down more than 25% compared with a year earlier, while apparel companies Tapestry,Capri Holdings and VF, which owns brands including Timberland, Dickies and North Face, all saw inventory levels that were at least 15% lower.

The delays will have ripple effects across the apparel industry: Calvin Klein’s parent company, PVH, said in a recent filing that the global vessel and container shortage was already delaying spring inventory arrival, pushing back delivery not only to its own stores but also to its wholesale customers, which include department stores. By extension, that could end up being bad news for off-price retailers such as TJX, which owns T.J. Maxx. They typically benefit from a greater selection when apparel brands are overstocked. Options are already narrowing somewhat because apparel brands have become more selective: Under Armour, for example, has pulled back from selling to off-price retailers to preserve margins.


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