MEDFORD — At Ebisuya Market in Medford, they used to carry almost 30 varieties of natto, a Japanese fermented soybean. But now, delays and rising import costs have forced the family-owned store to carry only five kinds, much to the dismay of customers, who miss the wide variety of sizes, textures, and flavors.
“I want to make a happy customer,” said Hideki Hiromoto, 58, who has owned the store for 12 years, “but sometimes we can’t get something [the] customer wants.”
While many grocery stores have experienced empty shelves this year, the shortages have hit Asian grocery retailers particularly hard. The challenges of importing and distributing goods make running a grocery store that depends on items from abroad an entirely different — and more complicated — task.
And owners like Hiromoto have been reeling from the effects of supply chain delays since the onset of the pandemic.
Hiromoto has gone as far as to purchase through vendors who ship items by air from Japan. Surface and air freight costs both increased in price since the onset of COVID, with surface freight 12 times more expensive and air transport 3.6 times more expensive, Hiromoto said.
Even after all his efforts, Ebisuya’s sales dropped by 15 percent in 2021. However, he said, the customers’ happiness and supporting his home country are his top priorities.
The shelves may look full, but “there’s been compromises made and a lot of adjustments,” said Bridget Walker, 59, Ebisuya’s office manager. “We have to constantly be judging: ‘OK, if I’m going to place an order, do I buy more than I think I need because I might not be able to get something else?’”
The difference between stores like Ebisuya and most US-based chains is where their supplies come from.
At Trader Joe’s or other places, “they were facing more domestic issues, whereas our supply chain is mostly international,” said Josh Nakama, vice president at Maruichi, a Japanese grocery store with locations in Brookline, Arlington, and two towns in Connecticut.
Any product from Asia likely will travel in a container by boat, and the bulk of delays have been happening since August 2020, along the congested trans-Pacific trade lanes.
“It’s like you get into a traffic jam, and then you have another accident in the middle of the traffic jam — and that makes the traffic jam worse,” said Willy Shih, a professor and economist at Harvard Business School. “We started with some problems, but then the problems caused other problems, and then everything just compounded.”
Shih said there are several reasons for the long wait times: freight delays, trucking shortages, and the logistics of where particular food was packed.
Smaller businesses suffer most from these delays. While larger chains have hundreds or thousands of containers coming in daily, smaller Asian food shippers and distributors are deeply affected, potentially relying on logistics providers or consolidating products into containers, Shih said.
With half of Maruichi’s wholesale distributor’s catalog out of stock, importing items is like a “hit or miss,” Nakama said.
“Every time you place an order, as compared to before the pandemic, you might receive ... half of whatever order you place, sometimes even less,” Nakama said. “These days, we always order more than we think we’re going to need just because there’s going to be so many out-of-stock items.”
Nakama said he’s heard from suppliers that delays will not be resolved until 2023 due to container issues. He noted that intercontinental transport, which used to take weeks, has soared to months.
“We are suffering it double because one, the container prices have gone up, like freight coming from India,” said Rakesh Soni, 50, who has owned Punjab Mini Mart in Mission Hill for 17 years and uses a New York-based distributor. “And then gas [and diesel] prices coming from New York to Boston has gone up. Earlier [trucks] used to charge $800; now they charge $2,500.”
Soni said that the items typically in short supply are usually cheaper, bulkier, and lightweight, like puffed rice, chips, or candy. Other items, like flour, have been hard to get because of how much space they take up, as well as Maggi instant noodles, a popular staple among students that’s been out of stock for three months.
And not having certain items has lost Soni business, especially when customers seek something specific.
“There’s some customers that come for these particular items only,” he said. “If you don’t have, they don’t come to your store. They’ll buy at some other store.”
And while sales are down, rent and electricity bills continue to increase. He’s keeping up, for now, but Soni acknowledged that eventually, there may be no other option but to shut down.
“It’s really, really hard,” he said. “My son is in college. Of course, it’s worrying. You have your business, house mortgage, this, that, [and] car payments.”