Labor, supply shortages in retail persist for Black Friday

Disruptions in the supply chains of many businesses continue and they mean there is an increased need for consumer flexibility when holiday shopping this year.


Ryan Hansen, News Reporter

Consumers should expect more empty shelves, higher prices, and longer waits for online orders when doing holiday shopping this year.

Jennifer Blackhurst, a professor of business analytics in the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, said the effects of labor and product shortages are going to be clear on Black Friday this year.

Issues within the global supply chain, she said, have already impacted consumers this year, even before the high volume of holiday shopping conducted on Black Friday.

“It really stems from our supply chains, across the board, being disrupted,” Blackhurst said. “COVID spurred the initial disruption. If we think back to 2020, parts of the world were being shut down, which meant that factories couldn’t run and companies weren’t producing things.”

Blackhurst said supply shortages for items like cleaning products at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic were just the beginning of supply chain issues. She said despite the worldwide production disruption beginning in early 2020, it is still affecting consumers today.

“Because they are these large, complex networks, a disruption at one part in the supply chain will ripple through to other parts of the supply chain,” Blackhurst said. “Often there is a time delay.”

Blackhurst said there is not one specific problem to blame for supply-chain issues.

“Prior to the pandemic, we really focused heavily on having supply chains that were efficient and could get things to you quickly and they were low cost,” Blackhurst said.

Now, she said the industry has recognized a need for supply chains that sacrifice efficiency for increased flexibility.

Blackhurst is urging consumers to be flexible and plan ahead in the event the desired product is unavailable on Black Friday or for the holiday season.

“You’ll have the things that you need, but you might not get the exact brand that you want or the exact size that you want in something,” Blackhurst said.

Anne Villamil, UI professor of economics and a supply chain expert, said delays in shipping and truck driver labor shortages will have a big effect on Black Friday in the United States.

“One of the things that is very hard for firms is that there is a lot of uncertainty,” Villamil said. “They know that things are on the way, but in some cases, they’re not sure, because of things outside of their control, [when] exactly it’s going to make it in the store.”

Villamil added that the supply chain would be resolved but said factors within the chain can quickly resolve themselves or become a problem, as toilet paper did in early 2020.

“I think most estimates are that the problems should be resolved by next year,” Villamil said. “If it’s purely logistics, I think we can get better at dealing with logistics [issues].”

Villamil said there are solutions to supply chain issues such as the Biden administration’s plan to operate a congested Long Beach, California port 24/7 until the issues are resolved.

Ann Campbell, the head of the department of business analytics at the UI, focuses on transportation and logistics within supply chains. She said a variety of different issues surrounding supply chains have combined to challenge businesses and consumers this holiday season.

“There’s not one issue. There’s like 20 issues that all make it more challenging and more difficult [for everyone], and they’ve set up this perfect storm,” Campbell said.

Campbell said deviation from the way the supply chain currently operates will help alleviate the risk of shortages, like those seen since the beginning of the pandemic, recurring in the future.

“When you have things like COVID or strikes or anything that shuts down a manufacturing plant, that means when you sell out, you can’t replace it,” Campbell said. “I think what’s going to happen going forward is companies are going to hold more inventory of the things that they think are critical to have to keep customers.”