'Like a perfect storm': Fall River area businesses feel pressure of supply-chain crisis

FALL RIVER — Local businesses say the current, global supply-chain imbroglio is nothing new.

Recent shortages of products and parts, they say, is an outgrowth of the disruption in production of goods and the delivery of services that first arose in early 2020 after COVID-19 was recognized as a pandemic.

And the growing backlog of as many as 100 container ships anchored at sea during the past month — awaiting their turn to unload cargo at California’s twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach — is a sign that the supply-chain disruption won’t be erased in the blink of an eye.

Marko Bastl, the director of the Center for Supply Chain Management at Marquette University, told USAToday the pandemic is unique because it has impacted both supply and demand. Some manufacturers still aren't operating at the levels they reached before the pandemic.

What is the supply chain?

The supply chain is how we get nearly all of the stuff in our lives that we want and need.

It's a system that helps make and deliver our favorite products.

It involves the manufacturers of these products, the companies that supply materials to create them, the cargo ships, trains and trucks that deliver them, and the stores selling them.

“You can think of this as a pipe that connects supply and demand," Tinglong Dai, a professor of operations management and business analytics at Johns Hopkins University, told USAToday.

Dai said it's not just the ship backlog — the process of unloading these ships requires a lot of work and people, including warehouse workers and drivers to ultimately deliver these products to retailers.

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The pandemic also affected companies focused on logistics, such as warehousing to store items that travel overseas and transportation like trucks and trains to deliver them across the country, said Bastl.

At the same time, due to millions of people staying at home to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, people ordered a lot of stuff, from personal computers to sports equipment.

"It’s almost like a perfect storm of loss of manufacturing capacity as well as loss of logistics capacity, married then with the increase in demand," said Bastl.

"The longer that these delays will last, the more likely it is companies involved in production, distribution and movement of our products will not be able or willing to absorb this cost, and they’ll start pushing them on to consumers," Bastl said.

Bicycle backorders

Robert Polakowski and his business partner Matthew Burke say that business at their BikeWorks store on Swansea Mall Drive was strong in 2020, as people bought bikes as a healthy diversion from the pandemic.

Polakowski said revenue had already been trending higher prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus, with sales in 2019 increasing 23% from the previous year.

Now, he said, sales are down 15% as compared to the same time last year.

“We’re still doing a good business with what we have. It’s just that we would be doing better business if not for the supply chain (problem),” Burke said.

BikeWorks owners Robert Polakowski and Matthew Burke are pictured here in their Swansea store showroom.

Polakowski says in addition to the difficulty of getting bicycles from overseas companies like Japan’s Shimano, he says certain types of chains and tire tubes have also been on backorder.

“These are essentials you need every day. You can’t ride a bike without either,” he said, noting that a shortage of parts became acute toward the end of 2020.

Polakowski said bicycle companies depend on the availability of parts manufactured in China, Japan, Taiwan and Indonesia.

And he said that includes foreign and domestic companies such as Chicago-based SRAM, which specializes in higher-end bike components.

The supply chain delay, he said, has made it particularly difficult to get parts needed to assemble bikes that sell for less than $1,000.

Polakowski says it cost around $3,000 in 2019 to ship a container of 250 bikes from Asia to the U.S. He said bike companies are now paying between $18,000 and $25,000 per container, which results in higher prices in the lower-end bike market.

Polakowski said whereas it used to take three to four days to unload a shipload of containers, it now takes three to four weeks.

He and Burke said they normally would have as many as 135 assembled bicycles on display in their store with another 100 to 150 in reserve stored in boxes.

“Now we have 70 to 75 at most in the whole store,” Polakowski said.

The two partners say their customers, many of whom bought their first adult bike at the store, understand the scope of the delivery problem and have been patient in waiting for special order deliveries.

Polakowski said one customer is still waiting for delivery of a $3,000 bike that was ordered last spring.

Burke, 35, knows firsthand how it feels. He says it’s been 14 months since he ordered a high-end bike for himself.

“First there was a manufacturer’s slowdown because of COVID, and then the parts weren’t available,” he said.

Supermarket shortages

The Stop & Shop grocery chain has two stores in Fall River and one in Somerset.

An email from a company spokesperson, in response to a request for comment regarding product shortages, attributes current supply-chain shortages to suppliers that “are experiencing labor and transportation challenges due to COVID-19.”

The email included no other reference to the global supply-chain disruption.

Recent shortages in Stop & Shop stores have included “juice and juice boxes, pet food as well as paper goods,” the spokesperson said — who added that “the situation is constantly evolving, and we appreciate our customers' patience and flexibility with these temporary disruptions.”

There's been a shortage lately of store brand wine vinegar in the Somerset Stop & Shop.

A PepsiCo employee working in the store that day noted that a number of the company’s beverage items have been in short supply, not only in Stop & Shop but also in Target and Walmart. He said he'd never seen it this bad.

Matthew Auclair, whose family since 1918 has owned and operated Auclair’s Market in Somerset, said current supply-chain shortages are indicative of U.S. businesses’ “reliance on overseas suppliers.”

The result, he said, is that “once we catch up with one thing, it’s another item” that begins to become scarce.

“But our industry isn’t unique,” in that regard, Auclair said.

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Items that have intermittently been in short supply include Boar’s Head deli meats and Green Mountain coffee.

A Boar’s Head sticker in the store’s deli section states that “due to ongoing issues in the supply chain, some items may not be available at a given time.”

A sticker in the meat and deli section of Auclair's Market in Somerset alerts customers to supply-chain shortages.

Auclair’s Market general manager Amy Oliveira said there have been shortages of non-food items such as bakery packaging.

She says another adjustment for the store and its customers has been a change in the weight range of fresh turkeys.

Oliveira says the store’s turkey supplier has extended its weight range from two to six pounds.

That reduces workforce hours when the turkeys are slaughtered and processed but also means that customers requesting a specific bird weight shouldn’t be surprised if they end up paying for a bird that’s six pounds heavier.

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Despite those challenges, Auclair says his customers “have been very understanding.”

Vivek Sankara, chief executive of Albertsons Companies that owns the Shaw’s supermarket chain, last week told Bloomberg that “I never imagined that we’d be here in October 2021 talking about supply-chain problems.”

But he also, in an interview with CNBC, said “we don’t have fundamental challenges like we did in early days of the pandemic” in terms of overall grocery store inventory.

Sankaran also told CNBC that turkeys were being shipped to stores “as we get them” and that Albertsons Cos. has been buying Thanksgiving products “a little earlier” than usual to fulfill customer demand.

Raw material shortages

"Raw material shortages and labor challenges have affected us significantly over the last year," said Allie Wainer, regional vice president of Sid Wainer & Son in New Bedford. "We see the cost of goods continuing to increase."

"When the pandemic started, raw materials providers shut down causing a big gap in supply chain. Industries are still catching up from that gap," she said.

Wainer said she believes these challenges are not going away any time soon, so she said her company will "continue to adapt to and overcome the new realty of a post-pandemic world."

Waiting for auto body parts

Meredith Ponte says getting auto body repair parts for her family’s Brougham Motors auto body repair business on Bedford Street has grown increasingly difficult in the last six months.

“It’s changed the way we get parts,” Ponte said of the continuing supply-chain disruption.

Meredith Ponte stands in the repair shop of her family's Brougham Motors auto body repair business in Fall River.

She said delivery of replacement parts from Asian vehicle manufacturers, in particular, have been taking much longer than usual.

Kia replacement parts overall have been especially scarce during the past two months, Ponte said, and certain body parts from Honda and Toyota are also on backorder.

“There’s nothing we can do about it,” she said.

In order to fill the gap, Ponte says she’s been buying more used parts from salvage yards in addition to calling more auto part supply dealers than would normally be the case.

Oftentimes, she noted, original manufacturer parts (OEM) can be salvaged from vehicles that have been totaled in crashes.

The result, she said, is that “it takes more time and effort” to get what is needed for many repair jobs.

Ponte also said she tries to anticipate what she’ll need.

“We try to order ahead of time,” she said.

Ponte said insurance companies have been willing to pay more for some salvage parts. She also said in some cases they have extended their rental car coverage to accommodate customers who are waiting for parts.

She says getting body parts from domestic car companies has been less troublesome: “We have less backorders with them,” she said.

Ponte said vehicles with major damage are being parked for more days in her family’s lot as compared to before the supply chain began to break down.

Landscaping businesses rolling with the punches

The year 2020 was a prosperous one for Eddie Almeida and his Alemeida’s Lawn & Maintenance business.

He started it five years ago with a dozen snow-removal accounts. Two years ago Almeida says he began offering commercial and residential landscaping services and eventually built up a clientele of more than 300 accounts.

More than 100 of those 300-plus accounts, he said, are customers who pay Almeida and his crew of five to cut and manicure their lawns.

Eddie Almeida, owner of Almeida's Lawn & Maintenance in Fall River, stands next to his dump trailer.

Almeida said the supply-chain problem has slowed him down.

“It’s stunted our growth,” he said.

Almeida says his business grew in the aftermath of the pandemic as more homeowners spent money on home improvement projects. He’s gone from owning two industrial lawnmowers in 2020 to six in 2022.

He was poised to take on even more jobs this past year but was unable to keep up with demand as result of the supply-chain disruption.

“I’ve lost 17 clients over the past few months,” he said.

Almeida ordered and paid $17,000 up front last January for a new Toro multi-season lawnmower. The main unit finally arrived at the dealership in March, but he said the bagging attachment is still on backorder.

“Now it takes three weeks just for a little part (to arrive),” he said.

Almeida says the price of machinery for professional landscapers has risen sharply in the past year.

He said the dump trailer that cost him $5,000 just before the coronavirus was declared a health emergency in March of 2020 now sells for $8,500.

Motorcycle dealers see shortages

Roland Levesque has owned the Suzuki Triumph of Swansea motorcycle shop at 610 GAR Highway since 1995.

As manufacturing plants slowed production, Levesque said it's become more difficult to get parts.

More recently he says there’s been a shortage of batteries, spark plugs and matching tires.

The owner of Suzuki Triumph of Swansea motorcycle shop says he's preparing to retire and close the business.

He recounted a recent visit from his sales representative.

“I asked when I’ll get my stuff, and he just looks at me and laughs and says, ‘All that (expletive) is sitting out on the ocean floating,’” Levesque said.

He says he’s winding down his career as a motorcycle shop dealer and expects to close within a month.

“The motorcycle business has been in the dumper for seven or eight years,” Levesque said.

“It’s a tough industry,” Levesque said.

— With reports from Seth Chitwood, Standard Times, and from USA Today.

Charles Winokoor may be reached at cwinokoor@heraldnews.com. Support local journalism and subscribe to The Herald News today.

This article originally appeared on The Herald News: Global supply-chain disruption impacting Fall River area businesses