Your NPR news source
Barry Phillips

Barry Phillips says his furniture store on Chicago’s North Side has been affected by global supply-chain issues.

Claudia Morell

From furniture to piñatas, Chicago businesses are feeling the effects of supply-chain slowdowns

Barry Philips owns Affordable Portables, a furniture store on Clark Street in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. He’s been selling furniture out of his family’s small shop since the 1970s.

He said what’s happening right now — the disruption in the global supply chain prompted by labor shortages, snarled ports and the ongoing pandemic — is unprecedented in his experience.

“I haven’t seen anything like this in 45 years,” Philips said. “The containers that are backed up at the ports. Merchandise is sitting there on boats and on land. They can’t get to anywhere.”

Philips said he has been having a rough time importing his goods from overseas. And the costs have gone way up.

The cost of a container went from $4,000 to $22,000. That has made it difficult for him to give customers the variety of choice he’s used to providing.

“People that ordered sofas that … I used to have immediately or in two or three days, or four to six weeks, are now taking six months to a year,” he explained.

He said he’s had to raise prices, and points to a sofa in the corner of his shop that he decided to mark up by $150.

Philips isn’t alone. The disruption in the global supply chain has been impacting Chicago-area small business owners and entrepreneurs.

They say they are having a hard time getting goods. Supplies are more expensive. Shipping costs are on the rise. And finding transportation to move cargo has been difficult.

That’s all translating to higher prices for consumers like you.

“Small businesses are just having a tremendously difficult time getting the supplies that they need to run their business, and, of course, this is even more concerning with the holiday season approaching,” said Elliot Richards, president of the Small Business Advocacy Council in Chicago.

He said the supply-chain problems are impacting all kinds of retailers.

“We heard a lot about it from restaurants. From folks who sell T-shirts. From embroidery businesses. You know, really, from businesses who are consumer-facing who need to serve food, get product out to their customers,” Richards said.

Even business owners who don’t have physical storefronts but rely on imports to make their products here are having a tough time.

Jennipher Adkins is the founder of Jenny Capp Co., which makes head garments that are sold at big-box retailers. Founded in 1998, the Chicago-based company sells about 200,000 units during a normal year.

This year, though, Adkins said she probably won’t be able to fill all her orders. Adkins isn’t kidding when she says she’s having a hard time finding materials.

“I can’t find fabric, it’s hard to find fabric,” she said, “[And it’s] very very slim pickings, colors of fabric, types of fabric, colors of thread.”

Adkins said the materials she can find are really expensive. The price per yard of basic jersey material — what most T-shirts are made of — went from about $5 to nearly $11 a yard.

“It’s a double misery quotient. Because not only are things higher, there’s less of it,” she said.

Supply chain

A cargo ship stacked with shipping containers is docked at the Port of Los Angeles earlier this month.

Marcio Jose Sanchez

In the Little Village neighborhood, Marco Rodriguez spends much of his time these days looking for someone to transport cargo across the border with Mexico. He’s a vice president of the Chicago-based Dulcelandia, the largest importer of Mexican candy and party favors in the Midwest.

“We’re currently having supply-chain issues,” Rodriguez said. “We have a couple loads of product in Mexico that are waiting to get picked up and we can’t find transportation partners who have the capacity to pick those up.”

Rodriguez said when he does get transportation, it’s up to 25% more expensive than in previous years. Earlier this summer, the cost of a star piñata went from $27.99 to $29.99.

It’s unclear how long these supply chain issues will last, because a confluence of events has created this mess of global trade. Nicole DeHoratius, an adjunct professor of operations management at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, said it will take time.

“My guess is that it’s largely prompted by the pandemic and that once we kind of get to normal labor conditions and normal demand conditions the supply chain can recover,” she said.

But there’s no clear prediction for when that will happen. For now, DeHoratius has some advice for consumers.

“We have to recognize that the lack of variety that we are seeing in some of the stores is intentional and it’s good for the system,” she said. “So be patient and kind to your retailers at this point.”

Claudia Morell is a WBEZ metro reporter. Follow @claudiamorell.

The Latest