If you’re an outdoor recreation enthusiast, and you’ve gone into any store to buy gear in the last 3 years, you’ve probably heard about the supply chain problems facing the outdoor industry. Both consumers and retailers are having a much harder time getting their hands on the amount of product they want, the specific products they were hoping for, and ensuring everything is showing up on time. As things have started to recover and move back towards normalcy after a few years of weirdness, many people figured the supply chain problems we saw early on in the pandemic were done and dusted, but that’s unfortunately not the case quite yet. If you feel like you keep running into these problems, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Read on for a quick crash course in supply chain logistics and the state of the outdoor industry.
First Off, What Is the Supply Chain?
You can think of the supply chain as the invisible road that your stuff travels down from the moment the manufacturer starts thinking about design and production to when UPS drops it on your doorstep. Essentially, supply chain logistics refers to the process of how raw materials get to factories, products get put together, and how those products get shipped to the distributors that can then sell them to consumers. Different companies utilize many different aspects of this global industry, but it all boils down to the same basic steps for most businesses. To put this into context for the outdoor industry, I’ll use the example of companies that are actually building skis.
How Does the Supply Chain Work?
Depending on the ski, there’s a lot of different materials that go into the construction. Maybe the manufacturer needs to source aspen, poplar, and paulownia wood all from different places just for one model. On top of that, they also need a carbon fiber material that’s sourced and processed by a separate factory in another country. Next up, they need to buy the metal they use to press the edges of their skis from a different distributor. Lastly, they get their base material from yet another distributor in yet another part of the world. Only when all of these materials arrive at their factory can they even begin to build the skis to fill orders.
Finally, the skis are done, packaged, and ready to ship from factories all across Europe to distributors and retailers in the United States. Though there are a few outliers, the vast majority of that product is going to be shipped to a port, packed into a shipping container, and make its way to the U.S. via cargo ship. When those containers are at long last unloaded in port cities around the country, they can begin their journey to the stores that sell them to you. This goes for online retailers and direct-to-consumer brands as well.
So What’s Going Wrong?
The disruptions in the supply chain began early on in 2019 and 2020, as areas of the world that are crucial to production like China and Taiwan, as well as European industrial giants like Germany and Austria, began feeling the effects of COVID. Many factories shut down entirely, and others had to reduce production as workers got sick and they scrambled to put safety measures in place. (As a quick aside, it’s also worth noting that one of the largest ski producing factories in Europe burnt completely to the ground in 2020, unrelated to COVID.) As a result, global shipping companies cut their projections for scheduling, expecting a drop in demand for moving goods. This was a sudden and crippling mistake. Demand for many things did in fact drop, but for hard goods and especially outdoor gear, demand went through the roof. Companies were swamped with increased orders as people stopped spending money on experiential travel and restaurants and started buying new toys to get them outside or help them survive staying at home.
The results of this essentially created an echo throughout the entire supply chain worldwide, and it’s this echo that we’re still feeling the ripples of today. A simple way to think about the supply chain is to imagine it like a highway full of cars. If all the cars are driving at a constant 65 mph, then everyone gets where they need to go in a timely manner. Once in a while, you get someone speeding or going slow, and as long as they don’t crash everything continues as normal. However, if even one or two cars slow down to say 35 mph, everyone has to hit the brakes causing traffic to slow dramatically. This is a nice way of putting it. Realistically, the analogy that fits the impact COVID had on the supply chain is a bit more extreme. Imagine that on that same highway, two big rigs collided and flipped at the same time blocking both lanes and causing a massive pileup. At the same time, imagine that all the emergency response vehicles were not in fact responding to the scene, but were instead stuck in a shipping container halfway around the world and not moving. That’s more like it.
What’s the Impact?
The impacts of this vary from company to company, as well as between different industries. For the ski industry, there have been and will continue to be fairly consistent problems. As anyone who tried to buy a mountain bike this summer can probably tell you, there’s just not that much product available to buy. The thing with the ski industry is that orders and manufacturing are all done usually about a year ahead of time. This means when your local shop orders skis, boots, and outerwear, they’re doing so months before they even plan to set eyes on the stuff. In normal times, companies can usually guarantee shipping times for late fall, ensuring shops have the gear they need before the ski season starts. While these shipping problems are beginning to get fixed, there’s still a lot of problems with decreased inventory, and you can expect many things to be out of stock for the season once we hit the holiday rush. To put it in perspective, the cost of sending a shipping container from Shanghai to Los Angeles pre-pandemic was around $2,000. Last year, that price skyrocketed to around $25,000. This means smaller companies are getting bumped out by industry giants, and wait times are increasing. Then we have the issue of wait times at ports here in the U.S. Due to increased COVID protocols and safety measures, it’s taking a lot longer for cargo to be unloaded and distributed. What’s really difficult though is that no one really has any control of this. The companies can’t make them go any faster, and the retailers can’t order more to compensate. Essentially, we’re stuck in a big waiting game.
What Can I Do?
There are a few things you can do to make this easier on yourself, and easier on your friends at small businesses.
- If there’s something you know you want for this season, shop early. If you waltz into your local shop come February asking for the most popular ski of the season or that limited edition goggle you saw in a buyer’s guide, don’t be surprised when they shoo you right back out the door.
- Accept that you might have to make some compromises. While it’s easy to get stuck wanting the one specific version of the one specific product we have our hearts set on, consider that it might not be an option. There’s still a ton of great products out there that you CAN get, and you’ll have just as good a time using them.
- Please take it easy on your small local sports shops. They’re just as frustrated by this as you are, and there’s not a single thing they can do to fix it. Support them where you can, and trust that they’ll get you set up with quality equipment no matter what.
This is not meant to be a downer, I promise. While it’s good to manage expectations, it’s also good to get excited about the season and excited for new gear! There’s tons of great stuff made right here in America that’s less impacted by these issues, and brands are getting more and more creative every day. So with that said, get yourself whatever you need to get outside, and be thankful for sliding on snow.