Supply chain woes hit home: Business owners face shortages of everything from birdseed to new cars

As the nation struggles with global supply chain disruptions, North Fork businesses of all kinds are struggling to stock their shelves.

Glass jars. Birdseed. RV antifreeze. Apparel. Inventory across industries is often harder to track down, and more expensive to order. Valerie Cichanowicz, owner of Chick’s Southold Agway, said ordering stock became a full-time job. 

“We’re just constantly checking their quantities. When we see that they have some in stock, even if we don’t need it yet, we’re putting an order in anyway, just to ensure that we get some products,” she said. 

An Oct. 21 survey from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York indicates that about 80% of service firms and 95% of manufacturers in the region have had difficulty obtaining supplies. A summary of survey results notes that “a large share of businesses in the region have responded to the disruptions by increasing their selling prices and scaling back their operations.”

“Troublingly, the availability of supplies has not been improving, and it is not expected to improve much in the near future,” the report says.

The most recent survey results from the U.S. Census Bureau, conducted between Oct. 11 and Oct. 17, indicate that, on a national level, 45% of small businesses have experienced domestic supplier delays and 19.7% have experienced foreign supplier delays. 

Matthew Bono, a manager at Southold Ace Hardware, said the store started noticing shortages towards the end of 2020 and the problem only escalated in the spring and summer. 

“[That’s] when it really started to become a major problem for us,” he said, adding that going into next year, the store plans to stock up heavily. “The amount of sales that we lose, just because we don’t have [a product] … it’s been really tough on us.”

He said that he’s noticed some items — such as household appliances — are more likely to ship to “big box stores” before smaller businesses like Ace in Southold. 

“Ace Hardware is a big corporation, but it’s very tiny compared to Walmart, Home Depot, Target, things like that,” he said. “Products are going to where the bigger contracts are. I mean, not to say that they aren’t experiencing issues as well.”

Revel North Fork in Greenport started buying up what was left of major clothing brands and popular styles and colors over the winter, once owner Jennifer DiVello noticed that delivery dates kept getting pushed back.

The store went from “buying what we knew we needed to restock for the following weeks to now buying what we might have to restock over the next year,” she said. 

It’s a more risky venture, she added — “this method of purchasing allows the possibility of more unexpected surplus that you might not be able to sell.”

Rena Wilhelm, owner of The Weathered Barn in Greenport, started using multiple distributors shortly after lockdown, when the boutique began to suffer shortages on products such as glass jars for soy candles. 

“We went from like, one main supplier to about eight,” she said. “One company might have had the jar but they didn’t have any caps. We ended up sourcing things from all over the place, hoping that they would fit together. We haven’t quite come out of that yet. There’s still shortages.”

At Burton’s Bookstore in Greenport, owner Scott Raulsome similarly has attempted to mitigate shortages by using multiple distributors. The store has suffered some shortages and expects to experience more as the holidays approach, he noted. 

“There have been some instances this past year-and-a-half where a popular book has been unavailable for a longer period than usual — sometimes a month or two,” he said. “There were several titles we wanted to carry during the summer or have for the Maritime Festival but they were simply unavailable until much later and it was frustrating because they would have sold well during that time.”

Bestsellers have been available for the most part, Mr. Raulsome said, but more niche titles have taken longer to come back in stock. 

Part of the issue is that, as Americans were largely confined to their homes during the pandemic, demand soared. 

“In 2020, when everybody was working remotely from home, demand … was through the roof,” Ms. Cichanowicz said. “What used to be slow-moving inventory — items we hardly ever sold much of — last year, we were selling out of them. [We] were pulling things out of the nooks and crannies, dusting them off and getting them on the shelf, and they were selling.”

Mr. Bono said that, especially with the influx of people on the East End, Ace Hardware has “definitely [seen] an increase in demand … which has been great for our business, but it’s also been hard to fulfill the orders as well, because some products just aren’t available.”

The confluence of low supply and high demand has, as might be expected, caused prices to increase. 

“As retailers start getting next year’s inventory, I think consumers are going to have sticker shock,” Ms. Cichanowicz said. 

The price of metal has “gone crazy,” she said. Lawn and garden tools have gone up about 30%, while the cost of a propane tank has increased almost 100%, she said. 

“We’re trying to be very conservative, because like I said, I don’t want to send anybody into sticker shock. But if I want to stay in business, I have to cover my costs,” she said. “I tell you, they’re coming up with just all kinds of names for the extra charges that they’re hitting everyone with and you know, I’m really friendly with a lot of garden center owners and we’re all in the same boat … Everybody’s feeling the same impact.”

Ms. Wilhelm said costs have doubled to produce soy candles. She hasn’t raised prices on the $20 staple in about eight years, even though at this point, they should be selling for somewhere between $24 and $26.

“I’m so leery of people coming in and being like, wait, I just got one last week and it was $20 and now it’s $24. So if we do raise them, it’s going to have to be very slowly,” she said. “We just don’t want to upset our customers, although I’m sure they understand because everything is … going up.”

Robert Kern, president of the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce, pointed out that prices for nearly everything, including shipping and fuel, have gone up. “The cost of fertilizer is up, the cost of seeds is up, the cost of food is up. I don’t know anybody whose costs are down. Everything is up,” he said, pointing out that many businesses are struggling with labor shortages as well. “The big problem with everything going up, is that when things settle down, which looks like it could be the second half of 2022, the prices generally don’t come down.”

Mr. Kern emphasized that the issues facing the business community now are complicated. “I don’t know if anybody has all the answers,” he said. But he encouraged consumers to shop local, especially ahead of the holiday season.

“There’s a lot of artisans here in Riverhead, on the North Fork and on the South Fork making some really cool products and that’s where I would be looking to find some unique things, not just mass-produced things from other countries,” he said. “I would absolutely urge people to look local. There’s a lot of treasures around.”