Barbara Hoopes’ students don’t need a textbook to understand how the world’s supply chain works and what happens when it is disrupted. They are seeing and experiencing it in real time.

Hoopes, who is associate professor of business information technology, teaches courses about operations management for Virginia Tech’s MBA program in Falls Church.

“There is no better time to be teaching about supply chains than right now, “ she said.

That’s because many items are hard to find right now, from certain foods to printed books, car parts, and more. Experts are warning consumers that many Christmas packages likely will not arrive in time for the holiday season.

Hoopes recently discussed the challenges with the supply chain nationally and globally and how consumers can maneuver this unprecedented time, particularly as the holiday season approaches.

Question: Since March 2020, when the pandemic began in the United States, the world has gradually reopened. So, why are some grocery shelves still empty? And why is it still taking so long to receive certain items by mail?

Hoopes: The initial shock to the supply chain is still playing out throughout the world. Just because we see infection rates going down around us, doesn't mean that’s the way it is happening around the world.

There are these stutter steps that are still happening in areas of the world that are producing a lot of the goods that Americans like to have delivered to their door in two days from Amazon.

Those little interruptions are exacerbated by the distance between where the production is happening and our doorsteps. Something that is a two-day delay there can turn into a two-week delay here. The delays all build upon themselves.

Question: What are the reasons for some of the shipment delays?

Hoopes: The ports have been overwhelmed. That’s the largest thing that has to do with the delays that we’re seeing day to day. Companies can’t get their orders unpacked.

There’s a shortage of truck drivers, a shortage of port workers. These different roles are strapped at a time when there is increased demand for those services. That’s a real imbalance that can produce significant and noticeable disruptions.

Question: How did the pandemic cause these issues?

Hoopes: Rather than from the illness itself, it was disruption in our normal patterns — work patterns and travel patterns and buying patterns. It all kind of snowballed into something that is now very much a part of our day to day.

Question: Have there ever been these same kinds of disruptions in past history?

Hoopes: The interconnectedness of the world economy is in an unprecedented state. That’s why this is more significant than any other event. Not that there haven’t been some upheavals that have caused delays in the past, but not to this level. Parts from one area are shipped to another area to be assembled, and those go to another area to reach the market needs. The pandemic sort of found that weak spot.

Question: How long will these delays and other supply chain challenges last?

Hoopes: It will settle down again, but it won’t be in a short timeframe. There are too many moving parts for the global supply chain that have been disrupted. 2022 may be full of fits and starts and odd shortages here and there.

Question: How are companies trying to work around these issues?

Hoopes: I think many companies that produce goods, the major manufacturers of the world, they are standing up alternate sources of supply. But you don’t open a factory overnight. It takes tooling and training and building up a supply chain around a new factory.

If you look at the long-term patterns, American consumers have really gotten used to very low priced goods that are readily available when they want them. Companies have optimized their supply chains to serve the customer’s expectations, focusing on low prices.

But you don’t build resilient or fault-tolerant supply chains by not adding in some parallel capacity — a plan B that is sort of in place so that you’re splitting production between multiple locations to reduce risk.

Companies aren’t going to do that without some motivation of some kind because it’s costly. So now they have a reason, which is the reduction of risk.

Question: What should consumers do?

Hoopes: If I had to give any advice, it’s flexibility and patience. This holiday season, it’s not guaranteed that consumers will still get what they want, which is high product availability at low prices. I would encourage people to support small and local businesses for holiday purchases. I also think people should consider giving experiences rather than things.

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