How Pittsburgh-area retailers are adapting to supply chain issues this holiday season
As holiday sales peak, Pittsburgh-area gift sellers are confronting the same shipping delays that have snarled global supply chains. Local retailers say the tie-ups have forced them to adapt in unprecedented ways.
“I've been in business for 50 years, and I've never scrambled like this before,” said Albert Elovitz, president of AlbertsGifts.com, which has a brick and mortar location in the Strip District. The gift shop sells souvenirs such as Pittsburgh-themed mugs, keychains, and licensed professional sports apparel.
“Many of the things that we expected in for Christmas have been delayed, and they won't be in till January,” Elovitz said. “We can't do anything about it, but we're going to surge on.”
Like other business owners in the area, Elovitz said shipping is the main hurdle. Goods that he imports from Asia are stuck on shipping containers on the West Coast, with some items scheduled to arrive in four or five months.
Elovitz said he’s managed to find new suppliers for some products. However, he can’t always identify a substitute, and sometimes he doesn’t have the option to cancel delayed orders
In those cases, he simply waits. He said he’ll have to sit on holiday-related items that arrive late until next fall.
“Anything that's related to Christmas, you can't sell in January. You have to wait till … November, December again to put it up and show it,” he said. “Nobody wants to buy a Christmas product in January.”
Elovitz noted one exception, however: A red, heart-shaped ornament that he began to sell this season will continue to appeal to customers at least until Valentine’s Day, he predicted. Bearing the message, “I love you jagoff,” the decoration quickly became a bestseller, according to Elovitz. He said he’s expedited new shipments of the product, forcing him to push other orders to the back of the line.
S.W. Randall Toyes & Giftes, meanwhile, has had little flexibility in managing supply constraints, owner Jack Cohen said.
“Most of the companies I buy from, if I call to place an order like this morning, they have like 30 or 40 percent of what I want,” he said. “They can't unload the ships at the harbor in [Los Angeles]. … Most of the stuff comes from the West Coast. … And then there's no truck drivers.”
Most of the products S.W. Randall sells are manufactured in China and Taiwan, Cohen said.
The 51-year-old business has locations in downtown Pittsburgh, Shadyside, and Squirrel Hill. Cohen said big sellers this season include train sets, wooden toys, giant stuffed animals and puzzles for adults. He said merchandise from the Gabby’s dollhouse line and the animated series PAW Patrol is also popular.
Keeping customers in the loop
Like S.W. Randall, Allison Park-based equestrian apparel maker Hunt Club orders most of its product from China and Taiwan, and it has also contended with extended delays on shipping. The retailer sells shirts, belts, and other accessories for horseback riding online and at about 50 specialty tack shops in the U.S. and Canada.
Hunt Club owner and creative director Sara Ladley said factories overseas have kept up with orders. But she estimates that, because of slowdowns in shipping, about a third of her company’s products were out of stock before a large shipment arrived earlier this month.
“That's definitely been a little bit frustrating as a business,” she said. “We have people that are asking for our product, and we just can't get it in.”
But she said customers seem to understand her predicament.
“The messaging around the fact that [supply chain disruptions are] occurring is so ubiquitous,” Ladley said. “You hear about it in the news. You hear other companies talking about it on their social media channels. And I think that is helping to instill in shoppers that … there are some issues happening.”
Ladley said Hunt Club has explained in emails to customers and on social media that supply constraints could delay orders and limit inventory. The business encourages customers to buy early and started to offer Black Friday discounts at the beginning of November.
“I think that that has been positively received by our customers,” Ladley said. “We have had … an uptick in our sales for early November.”
“And that also helps on our end,” she added. “We don't end up arriving at the post office on Monday after Black Friday with hampers and hampers of packages to ship and then … find that they're going to take way longer to get to our customers and they may not arrive in time.”
Still, the cost of shipping has risen significantly this year, Ladley said. So as the new year approaches, she will decide whether to raise prices on certain items.
“We like to try to keep our prices reasonable and affordable so we can outfit lots of equestrians from different backgrounds,” she said. “[Raising prices] is definitely a tough call, and we're taking it very seriously.”
Buying local helps
Blue Snail Gift Shop in Crafton, meanwhile, has been largely unscathed by global supply pressures, according to owner Jennifer Shorthouse. She said the outlet sources most of its products from U.S. companies, including some in southwestern Pennsylvania.
“I haven't really had a real big issue with [supply shortages] just because things are coming [from] throughout the United States, and I haven't had any real delays in shipping,” she said.
Still, Shorthouse said supply bottlenecks have affected her business on certain occasions.
For example, a pandemic-induced shortage of mason jars has hit cocktail kit makers that use the containers to package dry ingredients. Shorthouse said the kits are one of her most popular offerings.
In addition, she recently had to change an order for high-end chocolates from New York company Louis Sherry. She said the confectioner had run out of some of the holiday tins she had ordered, so she agreed to take a bigger size and different colors than she had originally purchased.
Overall, however, such hiccups have been few and far between in Blue Snail’s roughly one-year history, Shorthouse said.
But she acknowledged that she’s still bracing for Small Business Saturday the weekend after Thanksgiving. It was one of Blue Snail’s biggest sales days last year.
“I'm a little bit worried about where I might be after that date if I sell a lot of my items,” Shorthouse said. “But I think at that point then, I'll rely even more on the people who make things locally who can get the items to me.”