Back in January, 109 container ships waited off the California coast to unload cargo in Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation’s two largest ports. Consumers, stuck at home amid the pandemic, had unleashed an avalanche of orders for goods that overwhelmed factories and ports.
Importers were paying $20,000 to send a single container from China to the United States — sometimes more than the goods inside were worth. Businesses had to backorder everything from bedroom furniture to kitchen fryers, if they could get them at all.
These days? No freighters are lingering off the Southern California coast. Containers from China go for just $2,000. Restaurants can order fryers and have them delivered in a couple of weeks.
The supply backlogs of the past two years — and the delays, shortages and outrageous prices that came with them — have improved dramatically since summer. The web of factories, railroads, ports, warehouses and freight yards that link goods to customers have nearly regained their pre-pandemic levels.
“We are in a very different place than we were,” said Phil Levy, chief economist at the supply chain consultancy Flexport. “If you ask, how long does it take to move stuff, there has been notable improvement. If you measure it by how long would it take to get a cargo from Asia to a destination port, dramatically better.”
The easing of supply bottlenecks has begun to provide some relief from the inflation that this year reached a four-decade peak, pummeling consumers and businesses. The progress has been modest and so far short-lived. Yet it’s still provided a glimmer of good news in the holiday shopping season: Gift items are much likelier to be in stock, perhaps at lower prices. The government’s latest inflation report showed that prices of toys, jewelry and girls’ apparel all fell in October.