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The holidays are nearing, and merchandise meant to be on shelves is still on ships

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The busy Christmas shopping season is almost here. But a lot of holiday merchandise is still tied up in traffic. The logjam at West Coast ports is not getting any better. And for every cargo container stacked on a dock or stuck in a rail yard, there's a nervous importer eyeing the calendar, wondering if the stuff they've ordered will arrive in time for Christmas. NPR's Scott Horsley reports on the high-stakes race to get goods off ships and into stores before it's too late.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Bonnie Ross (ph) works for a small clothing company that sells jeans, fleece and workout gear, mostly to discount stores like Ross and Burlington Coat Factory.

BONNIE ROSS: We work on high volume, very, very tight margins.

HORSLEY: The company is called Nothin' But Net (ph). This year, though, getting its products from factories in Asia to stores in the U.S. has been nothing but aggravation at every step along the way.

ROSS: First, I couldn't get the containers to get them out of China. And then I couldn't get them on a boat. Now they finally get here. They're sitting at the ports for God knows how long. And now I can't have a truck to pick it up 'cause there are no trucks.

Now I got a whole new education. Do you know what a chassis is?

HORSLEY: A chassis, as Ross learned the hard way, is the trailer that a shipping container rests on when it's being pulled by a truck. Right now, it's hard to find an available chassis. A lot of them are stuck under empty containers, and that means it's taking longer to get full containers out of port.

PETER GRIMM: I have drivers who are frustrated right now that we can't move more containers. We do what's necessary to move cargo because if we don't, we don't eat.

HORSLEY: Peter Grimm runs the trucking company TK Transport in Compton, Calif. Most of what he's delivering these days is bad news. Ross had one container that was stuck at the port for a full month.

ROSS: We had one trucker that wanted us to pay $5,000 to go and pick up my goods from the port. I don't make these kind of margins. Like, I'm not Tommy Hilfiger. If they have to pay $3 more a garment, they don't care. But for us, it's everything.

HORSLEY: Eventually, Ross managed to talk a few containers out of the port, but eight more are still in transit. And her discount store customers are getting impatient. In some cases, Ross is bypassing overcrowded distribution centers and shipping products directly to retail stores. Otherwise, she says, they might not get there before Christmas.

ROSS: We're at the point where, you don't ship now, it's not going.

HORSLEY: And those delays come at a serious cost. Bobby Javaheri (ph) runs a company that imports small appliances like air fryers and pressure cookers. Some people buy those things throughout the year, Javaheri says, but the holiday season is critical.

BOBBY JAVAHERI: We had one retailer who bought 50,000 air fryers from us last year for a Black Friday promotion. They did so well, and they came back to us for Black Friday 2021. Now they're going to have to delete their promotion because the goods aren't going to get there in time - talking about over $1 million worth of goods. It's a disaster.

HORSLEY: As if dockside delays weren't bad enough, one of Javaheri's containers actually went overboard, one of more than 100 that toppled off a cargo ship in rough seas off the coast of British Columbia last month as the ship was waiting to get into a crowded port.

JAVAHERI: That's all I needed. My dad's 88 years old. He's been doing this for 50-plus years. He can't even fathom what's going on. That's how crazy it is.

HORSLEY: A big part of what's driving this crazy traffic jam is booming demand. Containers are backing up in large part because Americans are buying more stuff than ever before, an estimated 26 million import containers this year. While some of that merchandise may not reach its destination by Christmas - and some items will be out of stock - you're not likely to find row after row of empty store shelves. Many retailers started stocking up early in anticipation of a busy season. Danny Reynolds runs a clothing store in Elkhart, Ind., that just celebrated its 90th anniversary.

DANNY REYNOLDS: Our store started during the Great Depression in 1931, so I always say we were built to last, but this has all been different.

HORSLEY: Reynolds says deliveries this year have been erratic. Merchandise he expected to get in mid-summer suddenly showed up in October. Luckily, it wasn't swimsuits, and he's not sending anything back. Reynolds' store is well-stocked for the holidays, and he thinks a lot of people will be eager to buy.

REYNOLDS: From an inventory standpoint, we're ready. If they don't come, boy, am I going to have a big clearance sale (laughter) early next year.

HORSLEY: Reynolds is already thinking about ordering merchandise for next spring and summer. There's little sign the cargo traffic jam will be cleared by then.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.