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Toys May Be Scarce (And Cost More) This Holiday Season Due To Shipping Turmoil

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Parents, brace yourselves. Toys may be more scarce and more expensive this holiday shopping season. Toymakers and sellers are ensnared in a shipping crisis without precedent, as NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Curtis McGill asks to please understand that he is a Texan who does not get riled easily.

CURTIS MCGILL: But this one has tested even my old cowboy patience.

SELYUKH: Up all night, bidding piles of money for space on a transpacific ship. When McGill and a friend started a small toy company called Hey Buddy Hey Pal, he did not picture himself in this boat - boats suddenly being a very sore subject.

MCGILL: Last year, we were paying $4,000 a container. This year, we're paying $24,000 per container, if we can find them.

SELYUKH: Twenty-four thousand dollars for a single shipping container to carry toys from China, where most of them are made, to an American port. The trip normally lasts about a month. Now, it's taking two, three, even four months, which means fewer trips and a huge time crunch for the holidays, making containers expensive and elusive.

MCGILL: We just went and doubled our credit line. And so it's a mounting situation. I'm getting more stressed out the more that I talk to you now, Alina.

SELYUKH: I'd call it a perfect storm, but that barely describes all the turmoil in the supply chain. First, the trade war with China, then the pandemic with the rolling closures of factories and ports, then bad weather. And remember that giant ship stuck in the Suez Canal? Now, electricity issues are causing new shutdowns in China. Through it all, Americans have shopped like crazy. So this year, the ports never stopped being busy; every day kind of like Christmas, but not in a good way.

MARY HIGBE: With a fair amount of dread, I read our shipping reports.

SELYUKH: Mary Higbe is with Goliath, which makes games like Pop the Pig and Rummikub. Her shipping reports showed dozens of vessels in a floating traffic jam waiting to dock at West Coast ports.

HIGBE: And I can't commandeer a helicopter and rifle through containers to get the products that I need.

SELYUKH: Foreseeing this, Mattel, which sells Barbie and Linkimals, had begun making fewer toys. Hasbro, which sells My Little Pony and UglyDolls, started its holiday shipments weeks in advance. Overall, toymakers warn you're likely to see emptier shelves this holiday season, encouraging people to start their shopping exceptionally early.

HIGBE: My advice and what I've been doing is when I see something that I'd like to give for a holiday gift this year, go ahead and buy it. Even if it is in the store today, it may not be there next week. You may be waiting for another shipment, and it's sitting on a boat in Puget Sound.

SELYUKH: Also, be prepared for higher prices - 15%, 20- or more. Toymakers like McGill in Texas are trying to offset higher costs. His company has even shrunk its packaging, so more can fit into one container. Hey Buddy Hey Pal makes a spinning toy for children to decorate Christmas ornaments or Easter eggs, and they're best known for their Easter toy. It's called Eggmazing. So last month, McGill's team made the hard call to give up on Christmas.

MCGILL: We quit shipping Christmas items from China and moved to our Easter item in order to have it here in time. So we currently have about a little under half of our Christmas product in storage in China that will not make it to the states to be sold this year.

SELYUKH: If you're keeping tabs, that's another few thousand dollars for storage of abandoned Christmas toys. If Santa is listening, his sleigh and reindeer are urgently needed for help.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINAMI DEUTSCH'S "TUNNEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.