On the all-important East Asian to North American West Coast routes, the industry-standard Freightos Baltos Index reported spot prices on containers topped $20,000 in September before declining to more than $14,000 in early December — still, up more than 300 percent from December 2020.
Not that the price matters for product-hungry retailers this late in the game.
"If your product has not been unloaded, you are not going to get it in time for Christmas," longtime industry observer Richard Gottlieb of New York's Global Toy Experts told Plastics News in late November.
Deep pockets have helped the biggest firms weather the logistics storm. Last summer, Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart Inc. chartered its own ships to get product to market.
"Hasbro, Mattel and Lego have a very deep and broad team handling logistics," Gottlieb said. "They also have longstanding relationships with factories and carriers, so they're in a position to be first served.
"If you're a smaller company and you have always outsourced your logistics, you're going to have problems," he added.
Cases in point: Santa Monica, Calif.-based JAKKS Pacific Inc. blamed "logistics challenges" for a 2 percent year-to-year drop of net sales to $237.0 million for the quarter ending Sept. 30. But privately held Lego A/S of Billund, Denmark, reported first-half sales rose 46 percent to 23 billion Danish krone ($3.49 billion) compared with the same period in 2020.
At El Segundo, Calif.-based Mattel Inc., year-over-year sales for the same quarter climbed a healthy 8 percent to $1.76 billion. Pawtucket, R.I.-based Hasbro Inc. saw year-to-year sales for the same quarter leap 11 percent to $1.97 billion.
Hasbro's good numbers were tempered by the news of longtime CEO Brian Goldner's death Oct. 12.
None of this is making life easier for smaller players like Pickering. "In the toy business, if you buy enough, you often get free freight. Almost every company this year has either stopped it permanently or they've added a 10 or 20 percent freight surcharge," he said.
Supply will eventually catch up with demand, Gottlieb predicts. "Ships and containers are being built. We'll have a glut that will drive down prices. But this will take several years."
Supply chain challenges hardly end once that container is off-loaded. Labor shortages, including a dearth of truck drivers, have generated spot shortages even within major chains, Zahn said.
"Shipping to different parts of the country has varied. In theory, West Coast stores used to get most product, but not anymore. So containers now get to [the] East Coast before one gets delivered throughout the West Coast," Zahn said.
"I could find fully stocked Walmart and Targets near where I live in northern Illinois, while my colleagues can go to stores in the New York area and it's a totally different story," he said.
Both Global Toy Source and The Toy Book have responded to these challenges by offering online listings of manufacturers with domestic stock available and ready to ship.
"It's really in response to people who have extra shelves and need merchandise," said Gottlieb of Global Toy Source's Toy Matchmaker service.