One man’s shopping trip-turned-scavenger hunt shows how the supply-chain crisis has created an ‘everything shortage’

Walmart empty shelves
  • The supply-chain crisis turned one man’s quick shopping trip into “multi-hour odysseys.”
  • Historic delays at ports and across the transportation industry have spawned major shortages.
  • Executives warn the delays show no signs of stopping and will continue into 2023.

A global supply-chain crisis has emptied shelves, creating a cascading effect of shortages and price hikes that have become increasingly difficult to pin to a single item.

During an everyday errand run, The Atlantic staff writer Derek Thompson said that he found that snarls in the global supply chain have created an “everything shortage.” Thompson said what should have been a quick errand run for a take-home COVID-19 test, some paper towels, and prescription drugs turned into a sort of multi-store scavenger hunt.

The shopper went to a CVS, whose at-home COVID-19 tests and paper towels had sold out. Then he went to a Walgreens that had run out of everyday prescription medications, as well as a Target, whose ransacked shelves were “alarmingly barren, like the canned-food section of a grocery store one hour before a hurricane makes landfall.”

Thompson’s plight – read his full account here – represents a common scenario in US retail stores. At the onset of the pandemic, panic-buying of household goods like toilet paper and disinfectant wipes pushed jarring shortages across the country, spurring price hikes as well as rationing. While the shortages seemed to abate as 2020 came to a close, 2021 has brought its own shortages. From short supplies of chicken wings, diapers, and toilet paper to homes, furniture, computer chips, and cars it seems no market has escaped the impact of the global supply-chain crisis.

What’s more, the crisis shows no signs of easing anytime soon. Last month, two of the largest ports in the US hit multiple all-time records, as over 60 hulking cargo ships floated off the coast of Southern California – and it’s not the only US port breaking records.

It’s not one issue plaguing the supply chain, in what Thompson calls a “hydra of bottlenecks.” Backlogs at the ports have also spawned delays at warehouses, railways, and across the trucking industry.

The amount of time, as well as the amount of money, it takes to ship an item to travel from Asia to its final destination in the US has more than doubled in the past year and experts are sounding the alarm. In September, multiple executives warned customers should brace for continued shortages and price hikes into 2023.

The holiday season is boosting demand at the same time the entire supply chain is struggling to combat COVID-19 shutdowns, equipment shortages, and low worker levels. Companies from Nike to clothing brands and toy makers have told customers that their products will be more difficult to find this holiday season, as supply-chain experts say the holiday shopping season will look different this year.

Read Thompson’s full story here.