Eli Hymer knew this year would be different, but he had no idea it would be like this. The buyer for Richboro, Pennsylvania-based outdoor furnishings retailer Gasper Home and Garden expected to build on the unexpected success of last year, when the Covid-19 pandemic trapped people in their houses and spurred an overwhelming demand for anything related to the home.
But like so many outdoor retailers who sold through much of their inventory last summer, Hymer faced uncertainty heading into the 2021 selling season—which typically runs from March to just after July 4th for outdoor furnishings stores. Supply-chain disruptions, material shortages and shipping bottlenecks have left many outdoor retailers struggling to fill orders and find inventory.
“I’ve been doing this for 35 years and I’ve never had such a stressful year,” Hymer said. “I’m still waiting for part of my early buys to come in, and it’s going into the middle of June. I have pillows and cushions but no frames, and I have tabletops but no legs—I have a hodgepodge of a mess.”
Hymer isn’t alone. Outdoor retailers across the U.S. are dealing with unprecedented delays receiving product, much of which was ordered months ago. One major culprit is a massive logjam of container ships traveling from locales like China, Vietnam and Indonesia into California.
A recent outbreak of the Delta variant of Covid-19 in Guangzhou, China—a key port for the furnishings industry—has slowed exports significantly. And surging demand has created major congestion at California ports in Long Beach and Oakland, where ships can sit for weeks, waiting their turn. And those waits add up to more than just delays for retailers waiting on cargo.
“Off the coast of Long Beach there were over 44 container ships just sitting there, and we had two containers on one of those ships and our duty was supposed to be $5,000,” said Doug Sanicola, owner of Outdoor Elegance in La Verne, Calif. “And because it sat there, they charged us an overage to $12,500, which was in our contract and took away all of our profit margin.”
With furniture companies facing those same shipping cost increases—often double and even triple the usual fee—price increases are being passed down to the retailer, which then has to adjust the price for the end consumer.
“Every manufacturer has given me a surcharge,” said Sanicola. “We are constantly changing our prices because you have to have a certain margin to keep your doors open.”
And finished product isn’t the only thing stuck in transit. Even for domestic furniture manufacturers, some of the components used in their products are sourced from overseas. Shortages in fabric and foam—in part due to Covid factory closures and then the disruption of petrochemical plants during the winter freeze in Texas—have made it more difficult to get cushions, pillows and upholstered pieces. That means retailers have received incomplete orders with no guarantee when the missing pieces will arrive.
“I have one vendor whose frames came in this week, but I have no idea when the cushions are coming,” said Brad Schweig, vice president of operations at Sunnyland Outdoor Living, which has locations in Dallas and Frisco, Texas. “Some orders won’t be here until Christmas or next year.”
These delays have affected a major part of independent outdoor retailers’ business—custom orders—especially hard. To set themselves apart from big-box stores, independents rely on the ability to offer special orders to customers who want something different from the neighbors next door.
“Ninety percent of my business has always been special orders,” Hymer said. “On some vendors, I stopped taking special orders—I had to, because every time you’re taking those orders, you’re upsetting someone down the road.”
Another issue for many outdoor retailers—particularly those in areas with a clearly defined summer season like the Northeast and Midwest—is a rapidly closing window of time for sales and providing product to customers.
“I was able to pick up eight or 10 sets of furniture that I’m able to loan out to customers who are waiting for orders and need something now,” Hymer said. “Being in the Northeast, we have a limited season. So at this point, a lot of people say, ‘I’m going to have it delivered just to have it in storage for next year.’”
And for independent retailers who pride themselves on providing exceptional customer service, it’s difficult to be unable to satisfy their customers’ needs the way they normally do.
“I spent most of my last Tuesday just pacifying customers,” Hymer said. “Sometimes they just want to complain, and it just wears you down.”
With so much uncertainty and delivery delays stretching into 2022, many retailers are already concerned about next season. At the recent High Point Market in North Carolina, outdoor manufacturers such as Barlow Tyrie and Woodard reported significant increases in early buys for the coming season, as well as opening and closing the early-buy period earlier than years past.
“I never placed orders for containers this early ever,” Hymer said.
“But I’ve already placed orders, and I got a notification from one vendor today that their shipping time is 24 weeks.”
While last year turned out to be a surprisingly successful season for both retailers and manufacturers of outdoor furniture, the effects of pandemic-induced demand continue to be felt in ways both good and bad ways. Most retailers agree the situation will eventually even itself out, particularly once people begin to feel more comfortable spending their disposable income on travel rather than upgrading their homes. But until then, most in the outdoor furnishings industry are just trying to keep their heads above water.
“I know the vendors are in the same situation—nobody knows anything and things are changing constantly,” Schweig said. “It’s very hard to run a business when you don’t know anything. I can’t tell customers, ‘if you wait six months, things are going to improve,’ because I don’t know.”