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Up Front- Managing Expectations

DSCF7709 smallShannon Newton
President, ATA

I’m a strong believer in managing expectations. It helps avoid a lot of life’s disappointments. So as people start to sign their e-mails with “Happy Holidays,” we need to talk about setting our expectations for a “happy” season.

No one wants to talk about toilet paper again, but images of empty shelves where rolls of three-ply should have been stacked deep encapsulates the chaos of the early days of the pandemic in America. COVID-19 cases were low, only a few states were dealing with hospital capacity issues and misinformation was only starting to breach questions that scientists were just beginning to research.

We knew plenty of toilet paper existed, but the temporary disruption to the supply chain was enough to make the paper product aisles appear post-apocalyptic for a few weeks. The run on Charmin was a pandemic outcome I didn’t expect. Since then, every delicate link of the chain has been tested.

There are warning signs that the starts and stalls that began almost two years ago when Chinese factories closed briefly will linger into this holiday shopping season, making it even more complicated than usual. The seamless coordination of a complex network of modes supporting just-in-time delivery for every UPC code in America has not fully recovered.

Container ships are backed up in ports, and detention times are predicted to delay all kinds of products: new appliances to finish the renovations undertaken with windfall stimulus checks; computer chips that run all modern vehicles including commercial trucks; carbon dioxide that makes soda bubbly; wood pulp—the raw material used to make diapers, cardboard boxes and, yes, toilet paper. Also among the delayed products are the toys, electronics and books that we wrap and place under a tree.

This time, we should expect some empty shelves.

Every news outlet is warning shoppers to start early and to explore local in-store options rather than counting on items from online inventory being available to ship and arrive by Christmas morning.

We all have expectations of how things “should” work based on decades of precedented holidays. The supply chain is not broken or unfixable no matter what anyone tries to tell you, but it is fragile and every link depends on the one before it.

There are solutions to our problems. Some ports on the West Coast are aiming to shift to 24/7 operations to clear the backlog of ships waiting in the Pacific. Some large retailers are considering acquiring their own ships to have more control over their containers and their inventory. It’s more important than ever to protect our transportation workforce and support policies that allow our professionals to move freight safely and efficiently.

But as we approach this peak season, let’s all try to focus on the gifts that don’t come in a box and manage our expectations for the ones that do.  And please, please, don’t hoard toilet paper.

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Arkansas Trucking Association
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