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Holiday toy-shopping tips: "The best thing consumers can really do is shop right now"

Biden's plan to stop supply logjam
President Biden calls for California ports to work 24/7 to break supply logjam 02:52

Worldwide supply-chain bottlenecks and ongoing shipping delays mean that, the closer to December the calendar gets, the less likely store shelves will be filled with what consumers want most during the holidays — toys.  

Delays in shipping are so severe that President Joe Biden got involved on Wednesday. White House officials helped broker a deal to open the Port of Los Angeles 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Some 40% of the nation's imports come through the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports.

Major retailers and shippers also want to speed up things. Walmart and Target plan to expand nighttime operations, while UPS and FedEx aim to do the same, according to the White House announcement

"Every little bit helps," Marissa Silva, editor-in-chief of Toy Insider magazine, told CBS MoneyWatch. "So if they're having the L.A.-Long Beach ports open 24 hours, they're saying that they can unload an additional 3,500 containers a day. And every day matters — right? And every container matters." 

Toys are sitting on factory floors in Asia due to COVID-19 supply chain issues 01:45

Some 85% of the 3 billion toys sold annually in the U.S. come from China, according to the Toy Association. So if you want the best-selling toys this holiday season, you better not wait, Silva said. "The best thing consumers can really do is shop right now," she advised.

Toys should be in stock now. But some arrived four to six weeks behind schedule, Silva notes. That means by the time December rolls around, shelves may be empty and stock to replenish them may not arrive in time for holiday gift-giving, even with the changes at ports announced Wednesday.

Silva spoke to CBS MoneyWatch about the delays, and what actions consumers can take to avoid a holiday disaster. The interview has been edited for length and clarity:

CBS MoneyWatch: Consumers may be wondering what to do about their holiday gifts, particularly when it comes to toys. What's your best advice?

Marissa Silva: Over 80% of toys are actually imported from China. So, obviously the toy industry is really heavily impacted by the shipping crisis and all these delays.

The best thing that consumers can really do is shop right now, shop as early as possible to get their hands on some of the hottest toys of the year.

From a timing perspective, we're seeing up to six- to eight-week delays in the shipping process for toys. Typically, toys that are the hottest toys of the year for the holiday season set at retail in mid-to-late July. And now, this year, they really aren't setting until October. 

So toys are available now, which is a good thing. But if you wait to shop until Black Friday or even in December, those toys that are in stock now may not be restocked. That's what the big fear is — that the restock won't really happen until January.

So what's the best thing consumers can do to prepare?

It would be great if parents and caregivers get their kids to make those wish lists a little bit earlier. Going in with a game plan can be really helpful.

A lot of the TV commercials and YouTube ads are already rolling out, so kids are already getting exposed to some of those hot toys, and they'll have a pretty good idea of what they want already. 

If you're shopping online, a really good thing to do is to double-check those estimated arrival dates, and make sure that you're staying on top of the tracking — a lot of consumers are struggling with relying on things like two-day shipping. 

If something says that it's Amazon Prime, they assume it will be here in two days. But actually, the shipping time can be a couple of weeks longer than that. Or the ship dates keep getting updated over and over again. So, when you're shopping online, making sure that those ship dates are accurate is going to be really important this holiday season.

One of the things you recommend is to shop in-store and shop frequently. Why?

What we're seeing with the shipping crisis is that things are different in different regions. There's ports in L.A, ports in Atlanta [and coastal Georgia], ports kind of all over the place, and things are coming into retail [stores] in different parts of the country at different times.

Even in your own city, Walmart may have something that Target doesn't one week, and then it could be flipped the week after that.

In-stock alerts are not always 100% accurate or reliable. Sometimes it doesn't get back into the system right away. Go and see for yourself. If you do regular shopping at some of those big-box stores, like Target and Walmart, just go take a quick peek down the toy aisle. You never know what might be there. 

And I think looking for something being on a shelf might be a little bit less competitive than trying to shop online, which millions and millions of people are trying to do every day, and they're all going after that same supply.

Prices are going up everywhere. How can you make sure you can afford the items on those wish lists your kids are making before they even go trick-or-treating for Halloween candy?

It's definitely a really good idea to budget more for toys this year — toy prices are increasing in 2021.

Some things like action figures may only increase by a couple of dollars, maybe $2 or $3. It really varies brand to brand.

A lot of that is attributed to the cost of raw materials going up: packaging is more expensive, for instance. Obviously, toys are very widely made of plastic. And then, larger items, like, you know, really large doll houses or ride-on toys — those are up as much as 10%. Again, it varies brand to brand.

But it's definitely a good idea for you to go into your holiday shopping knowing that these things are going to cost just a little bit more than you're used to.

Are there any alternatives to the big-box stores like Target and Walmart?

Absolutely. Specialty retailers, your mom-and-pop toy stores, are very well stocked with toys. And not only do they have some of those really great specialty brands like Melissa and Doug, but they also carry a lot of mass [brand] toys like Lego — toys from companies like Mattel. You can find those at specialty local toy stores. So never count those out. 

It's really a good idea to think outside of the box, we say. Obviously Walmart and Target are really great resources for toys — they have huge toy aisles — but your local toy store can sometimes offer better customer service. They use gift-wrapping and they're well-stocked with all these toys.

Because these stores typically make their purchases on a smaller scale and because they're serving a smaller community, it's easier for manufacturers to fulfill those orders.

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