Consumer shortages offer supply-chain lessons

The pandemic has included all manner of unpleasant experiences, including shortages for various products from toilet paper to cars and trucks.

Experts often blame the "supply chain", which is, quite literally, a chain of supplies, from raw materials to products on store shelves.

When consumer demand roared to life, after pandemic shutdowns, several links in that chain couldn't handle the stress.

The most immediate effect is higher prices for limited supplies. The Wall Street Journal reports a growing number of manufacturers are even steering away from basic consumer products, in favor of higher-end models that bring in more money.

There are a lot of moving pieces to these supply chain challenges, starting with the manufacturers, often in Asia, making consumer goods. Those products are put aboard a container ship that sails across the Pacific Ocean, typically to the Port of Los Angeles, which takes in 40% of the nation's container traffic. From there, products are put aboard a truck or train, and sent across the United States. Every single one of these steps is overloaded with work.

To see it in real time, the website Marine Traffic charts every ship on the planet. Zoom into the Port of Los Angeles, and a collection of green circles represent container ships anchored, and waiting a turn to be unloaded.

"We need to see more major retailers and importers diversify where they bring their cargo in," says University of Houston Supply Chain & Logistics professor, Margaret Kidd, "You can't bring that volume of cargo into one port."

To help ease the congestion, some supply chain experts have suggested Houston being a destination for some of those container ships.

In the last few years, the port has certainly picked up some of that traffic, but there are other complications to consider. Most notably, time.

Container ships, forced to wait in Los Angeles, usually sit anchored for seven to nine days before they can unload.

"If they say to continue the journey through the Panama Canal to Houston for the round trip, it will take more than nine days," says UCLA professor Chris Tang, "Who is going to pay for that?"

On top of that, a trucking and labor shortage is stretched, trying to move merchandise within the country.

For now, some of those added costs are being passed on to consumers. A spokesperson for the Port of Houston does say there are efforts to expand container traffic, locally. Still, the challenges are expected to last into next year, or longer, before they are resolved.