News analysis

  • Christmas is in 99 days.
  • Thanks to the weirdness of the pandemic, that's not a lot of time left to shop.
  • Global shipping delays and manufacturing disruptions have been playing hell with entire value chains.
  • South African retailers have coped well – so far – but some suppliers aren't making the usual cast-iron promises.
  • If your recipients have very specific expectations about the season's must-have gifts, get shopping, or shift expectations, now.
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Christmas is coming. Probably. Things being what they are, there is a chance – small, but not zero – that it will be cancelled.

There is a somewhat bigger chance that pandemic-induced trouble at ports and factories across the world could affect what makes it onto South African shelves, in a way that makes the 99 days left until Christmas (as of Friday) not very long at all.

So now is an excellent time to get shopping, or to start managing expectations.

South African retailers went through a period of intense worry earlier this year, not least of all when SA ports were closed first by unrest, then by IT trouble, at what is traditionally an early part of the buildup to Black Friday and festive season stock levels. As those local logistical troubles subsided, so did the concerns of the biggest retailers, to a "so far so good" level of stress.

But a combination of factors has left supply chains so precariously balanced that there is a real risk of global shortages in specific lines of toys and consumer electronics, and potential for trouble in large appliances too.

That is leading to forecasts of narrower lines of discounted goods on Black Friday sales and, if not very much more goes wrong, some categories of shelves being empty come November and December.

At that point, consumers may have to adopt the stance some retailers are already adopting: if you can't get what you want, take the best you can get.

The trouble is all rooted in the pandemic, though the exact way it is expressed differs between the categories of goods affected. 

In some instances, the way the pandemic has changed behaviour has directly caused shortages, such as when a South African company had trouble finding enough spare parts for bicycles after people in the UK took up cycling in droves

In other cases, the problem is a little more convoluted, such as when an already looming shortage in computer chips was brought forward by a sudden surge in demand for gear to work from home, then combined with factory closures and competition between sectors to grab what supply could be had.

There are also areas where freak occurrences magnified the impact of the pandemic, such as when the Suez Canal was closed by a stuck ship after the world scrambled to move Covid-19 supplies around quickly, leaving large numbers of shipping containers stuck in the wrong places at the wrong times – while ships lay idle because crews couldn't move around, for reasons including the lack of planes because of leisure travel bans.

Much comes down simply to the determination of the world's factory, China, to halt the spread of the coronavirus even if that means closing down critical factories or ports for extended periods of time.

Nobody knows just what new virus variants and a Northern Hemisphere winter on the one hand, and a growing population of fully vaccinated people on the other hand, will mean for Christmas logistics. Companies across everything from shipping to retail say they have learnt hard lessons, and found innovative ways to protect their staff and businesses.

Very recent history suggests they may not be as prepared as they think they are. And the clock is ticking.

Don't say we didn't warn you.

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