By: Brian Metzler
As if the craziness of the past year hasn’t been enough for the running industry, a major shipping delay has slowed delivery for numerous running shoe and apparel manufacturers as they’ve tried to get their Spring 2021 gear into retail distribution across the U.S. The shipping delay and lingering lag due to Covid-19 restrictions and Chinese New Year have been unprecedented for the running industry.
Literally, thousands of pairs of new shoes have been sitting on boats at sea within a few miles of Los Angeles for weeks and others have been slow to leave factories from many Asian countries. That delay hasn’t yet been a disaster for brands or for many smaller, independently-owned shops that are still trying to sell lingering 2020 inventory, although it has resulted in a lack of fill-in availability because quantities on some models have been limited.
Since mid-January, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have been experiencing historic congestion. At one point in early February there were 62 fully-loaded container ships anchored in the bay waiting to unload, which meant the new products of many running brands — including Hoka, Saucony, Puma, Nike, ASICS, Altra, New Balance and Skechers — were held in shipping limbo. That’s one of the reasons most brands have been slightly late or even very late to deliver certain products to stores this spring.
There was already a lag from the slowdown due to new health and safety precautions brought about by the pandemic and Chinese New Year, which fell on February 12 this year. Typically a weeklong celebration, this year’s Chinese New Year reportedly resulted in longer production line shutdowns, a greater disruption in the component supply chain and greater turnover and lower productivity at many factories.
That all comes at a time when American consumer spending caused by the Covid-19 stay-at-home shutdown led to a huge boom in trans-Pacific shipping that started in the fourth quarter of 2020. That was partially a factor of more goods being purchased online than ever before. The ports of Oakland, Seattle-Tacoma and Port of Lazaro Cardenas in Mexico were accepting diverted ships, but also suffered from congestion, according to shipping industry news reports. Some brands had to then retrieve partial shipments from different ports and get them to their warehouses, along with some product that was fast-tracked via air at a much more expensive rate.
Container volumes hit a limit in late January, forcing carriers to cancel (or “blank”) sailings, thus further slowing the shipments from Asian manufacturing hubs. Making matters worse for U.S. exports, many ships returned to Asia empty to speed the process of returning with more imports, meaning U.S.-made goods were slow to reach overseas ports.
"At the worst we were three or four weeks late with some models in late January and early February," one industry insider at a major running shoe brand said on the condition of anonymity. "Our teams have added an extra seven to ten transit days into the process. The ports are still bad, and have heard it won’t subside until May/June. With longshoreman-related issues as ports try to add automation, we hear it is likely to get worse again in August/September as holiday shipping increases."
Further complicating matters is that there have been a few tanker accidents that have sent containers — some of them loaded with new running shoes — overboard into the sea. In late January, more than 700 containers — known as twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) — fell overboard while sailing from the eastern Chinese city of Xiamen, to Los Angeles, while a separate accident resulted in several hundred more containers falling into the sea in mid-February. Reports have said that Puma and Adidas were among the running brands that lost thousands of pairs of shoes in those accidents.
The good news is that there is huge consumer demand and many signs the economy — and specifically the running industry — will continue to surge into 2021. The Port of Los Angeles set a February record — 799,315 TEUs unloaded, a 47 percent year-over-year jump and the most for the second month of the calendar year in the gateway’s 114-year history.
Fortunately, the congestion was starting to dissipate as of mid-March. The number of container ships at anchor in San Pedro Bay has dropped by more than half at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on February 1. Shoe delivery will likely remain slow, but the increased consumer demand of a continuing running boom should be a good thing all around, especially if small running shops can safely reengage local customers with brick-and-mortar shopping.