Ordinarily, the caustic aroma of a refrigerator burning out would be enough to ruin anyone’s day. Having it happen during a pandemic-induced disruption in manufacturing and shipping has caused three months of frustration and stress for Kelley Chunn.
When Chunn’s 18-year-old Frigidaire failed late in the summer, the Roxbury resident’s initial worry was the rack of lamb she had just bought. Today, she’s still jamming her perishable food into a mini-fridge because she hasn’t been able to get the new full-size appliance she ordered in September.
“I’ve had it,” said Chunn, who acknowledged that it’s hard to know where to aim her ire amid a cascading series of worldwide problems that have twice delayed her Whirlpool’s arrival. “But I’ve had it with the supply chain.”
Appliances are just one more item on an ever-growing list of products that have become harder to get in a timely fashion because of COVID-19. First it was groceries and toilet paper, then home improvement supplies, sporting goods, and furniture. Now, as the holiday shopping season chugs toward its conclusion, the invisible ― and complicated ― system that gets items into stores and to customers’ doors faces unprecedented pressure.
The slowdown is a reversal — if only a temporary one — of a decades-long trend in which consumers have become increasingly accustomed to immediate retail gratification.
Many decades ago, Americans were forced to ration goods during war or economic calamity. During the pandemic and its economic fallout, most consumers aren’t going without, but they are grudgingly learning to plan ahead, compromise, and accept delays.
”There are older generations of consumers who still remember very well that items were not always available. That experience can shape their consumer behavior for a long time,” said Sabrina V. Helm, a University of Arizona professor who studies retail and consumer science. “So there may be some carryover, even among younger consumers, because they’ll remember what it felt like when all of a sudden you went to a store and stuff wasn’t there.”
But Helm said it’s just as likely that shoppers’ expectations will snap back to normal as the pandemic subsides. After all, more than nine months into the crisis, some consumers have yet to adjust their attitude toward buying goods.
“The mindset is, I put in an order and I want it in two days, and that’s that,” said Laura Harper, chief executive of Xpedite Fulfillment in Lawrence, which is carrying out as many as 3,000 orders per day for e-commerce firms and other companies in spite of staffing shortages, social distancing requirements, and shipping challenges. “They don’t look at these factors we face.”
Every business has its own set of challenges. Some are struggling with getting inventory from suppliers; some lack the space they need for workers to spread out and still produce at their normal volume. Others are contending with periodic delays in deliveries as shipping companies strain to meet exploding demand.
All are trying to find ways to explain to customers that they are doing everything within their control to meet expectations. In a global economy, however, there is a lot they can’t do much about.
“We’re in that mindset to say ‘yes’ and provide a great experience,” said Heather Yunger, chief executive of Top Shelf Cookies, which does about 30 percent of its business around the holidays. “So any time when we’re like, ‘Shoot, we don’t have exactly what you want,’ things have already gone off the rails.”
Yunger said she is doing all she can to bake huge amounts of cookies at a shared kitchen space in Dorchester, while dealing with complications such as an unreliable supply of decorative gift boxes.
“Everything has been disrupted. The whole manufacturing process has been disrupted for things you don’t even realize,” said Eliot Tatelman, president of Jordan’s Furniture, which has seven stores around New England.
Some furniture factories have been slowed as workers have gotten sick with COVID-19. Some have reduced capacity for safety. Some can’t get crucial components that they need to make furniture — Tatelman noted that a type of fabric normally used in furniture is currently being diverted to the production of masks.
As a result, he said, orders that used to go out in a matter of weeks are routinely taking months.
He said customers have grown more understanding as the pandemic has dragged on and they have experienced shortages and delays elsewhere. Business has remained strong as people spend more time at home, but Tatelman said Jordan’s is working to help customers understand the uncertainty around deliveries.
Tatelman, the ubiquitous spokesman for the furniture chain, cut a recent TV commercial outlining some of the things he’s been unable to obtain personally — including ingredients for s’mores for his grandkids — as he urged customers to plan for delays. He said he and his staff also are reaching out to customers directly to explain why a delivery has taken so long.
“Everything is my reputation, and that’s the last thing I want people to think: that we’re not telling them the truth,” he said.
Delivering goods that require a lot of parts, such as appliances, is more complicated. Parts often come from all over the world, and a product can’t be completed and shipped if a single component is missing.
“When I started, you bought a Maytag washer, and it was designed, built, and engineered in one place, which probably isn’t the most economical way of doing it,” said Steve Sheinkopf, chief executive of Yale Appliance, which has showrooms in Dorchester, Framingham, and Hanover. “It all works great, until you have a pandemic that hits worldwide at different times.”
He said he’s seen disruptions in staffing or operations everywhere, from US warehouses to overseas manufacturers of specific components of appliances. With so many variables, it can be hard to predict where trouble might emerge along the supply line.
Like Jordan’s, Yale is telling customers they can cancel long-delayed orders — but it’s advising them not to do so unless they’re sure they can get an alternative product more quickly elsewhere.
During the pandemic, Scheinkopf said, Yale has learned to give customers “worst-case scenarios and to just be upfront about it, even if you’re losing the order.” He also said his staff tries to steer people toward products Yale already has in stock, which makes delivery much simpler.
But some people have particular needs, and because appliances are an infrequent and expensive buy, they often expect to get exactly what they want.
Chunn, who ordered her refrigerator from Yale, said she needed a certain size because it has to fit into a compartment built to house her old refrigerator. And she really wanted one with side-by-side doors, which has been harder to find.
She doesn’t blame Yale for the long delay. Though the product has taken even longer to get than the store originally expected, Yale offered to sell her a model with the freezer on top, which she declined. For now, she’s willing to keep waiting, though she may lose patience as the calendar flips to 2021.
“I wouldn’t say I was angry about it. I do have an alternative, and there are people standing in food lines,” Chunn said. “Come on now. It’s not like I’m starving.”