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Might want to start that Christmas shopping now, Tampa Bay. Thanks, pandemic.

Retail experts say closed factories, clogged ports and depleted workforces may change how we give gifts this year.
What will Christmas giving look like this year? [LUIS SANTANA  | Times (2018)]
What will Christmas giving look like this year? [LUIS SANTANA | Times (2018)]
Published Sep. 16

Will someone in your household be hoping for a LEGO Harry Potter Hogwarts Chess Set under the Christmas tree this year?

A Rainbow High Rockstar doll peeking from a stocking, perhaps?

With Labor Day barely over and Halloween more than a month away, it might be hard to wrap your head around Christmas.

But those who closely watch the retail and commerce industries say shoppers hoping for must-have gifts for the holidays might want to get busy right about now, given the havoc wreaked by the pandemic.

“The two headlines from my perspective are: It’s going to be harder to find what you may be looking for, and it’s going to be more expensive,” said Keith Anderson, senior vice president of strategy at Profitero, an e-commerce analytics company that provides data to retailers and brands.

“We all want to give some good gifts to our loved ones,” said Seckin Ozkul, director of the Supply Chain Innovation Lab and professor at the University of South Florida’s Muma College of Business. “If you know what you want, get it now.”

The coronavirus crisis shut down factories and bottlenecked the shipping of goods to the United States. Manufacturers have grappled with not having enough workers, and shortages have included even the shipping containers to get products here.

Importing right now “is a bit like trying to catch an Uber or Lyft at the stadium right after a big football game,” Thomas Harman, founder and CEO of Balsam Hill, a retailer of home decor including artificial Christmas trees, recently wrote in an opinion piece for CNN. “You may have to wait a long time to get a ride, you pay surge pricing rates, your ride gets stuck in traffic, and you have to pay for the extra time it took to reach your destination.”

Normally by September and October, ships containing Christmas season orders “are sailing toward the United States,” said Ozkul. “And by November and December, we have goods on the shelves.”

But clogged ports may have a ripple effect, Ozkul said, and some shelves could be emptier this year.

Consumers buying furniture, appliances, cars and other goods during the pandemic have become painfully familiar with the term “supply chain issues.” And some may already be preparing for the peak-demand holidays.

According to CreditCards.com, 51 percent of people in a recent survey said they planned to start their shopping before Halloween. Thirteen percent said they would jump in as early as August and 27 percent before the end of September. Sixty-two percent planned to shop online — lower than last year’s 71 percent, but well above pre-pandemic numbers.

Ted Rossman, senior industry analyst for CreditCards.com, agrees it’s a good year to start early. “Plus that gives you more time to comparison shop,” he said.

Advice from some who watch the retail industry:

Consumers can adjust gift expectations from, say, popular electronics and shop smaller, local and niche businesses, many of which have accelerated their online availability. If what’s on a wish list is an item already notorious for delivery delays, such as furniture, consider an alternative.

And since consumers may see higher prices because of those coronavirus complications, they should shop smart.

“Be price aware,” said Anderson of Profitero. “There are better tools now than there have ever been for both comparing prices and (predicting) longitudinal price trends” — for instance, a camera that’s about to come out with its latest version, which could affect the price of the current model.

But ultimately, if you want to be sure to have a must-have gift in time for the holidays, Anderson said, “I would say you’ve got to move fast.”