Supply shortages, shipping delays hit Southeast Alaska businesses

Several empty shelves at a grocery store.
Some shelves at the Trading Union grocery store in Petersburg are nearly empty. (Katie Anastas / KFSK)

A COVID-19 outbreak at a warehouse in Centralia, Wash., has led to shipping delays at grocery stores throughout Southeast Alaska, including in Petersburg. Some shelves are nearly empty. They’re not likely to be filled anytime soon. And, it’s not just grocery stores feeling the strain. Many businesses in Petersburg are experiencing supply shortages and delays more than a year into the pandemic.

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Walking down the aisles at the Trading Union grocery store in downtown Petersburg feels like traveling back in time to the start of the pandemic. There’s no toilet paper. There’s no milk. Customers have cleared granola bars off the shelves.

The store’s general manager, Barry Morrison, said they’ve gone six weeks without freight shipments, following a COVID outbreak at their supplier’s warehouse in Centralia, Wash.

“The first thing they stopped shipping out was dry goods,” he said. “Those are typically your biggest orders, and they’re the bulk of all store orders. So you want to start limiting cases. You go strictly fresh. But it did impact our meat. They didn’t ship it one week. They missed our whole milk order, so it was a little rough.”

The supplier, United Natural Food Incorporated, sent Trading Union some orders from their warehouses in Stockton, Calif., and Billings, Mont.

That helped, said Morrison, but it adds two days of travel time. Plus, he said, he couldn’t order more than two cases of any product. He expects it’ll take six to eight more weeks until things are back to normal. In the meantime, backup supplies are running low.

“We’ve made sure since the pandemic started in the beginning that we have extra flour, extra mayonnaise, extra sugar,” he said. “We have extra, we’ve just gone through most of that extra having six weeks of no freight.”

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The grocery supply shortage is the most dramatic in Petersburg right now. But other businesses are dealing with their own shortages too.

Will Ware owns The Cedar Box, which sells Alaska Native art and fishing supplies. He said he has more customers this summer compared to last year, when the pandemic severely restricted tourism. This year, he said, the biggest challenges are shipping delays and higher freight rates for supplies.

“I’ll use an example. Like hangers for our slat boards for our wall, we recently got those. We were waiting months for those and we just got them in,” he said. “Even supplies like bags to put our products in, it’s been really difficult to get a steady supply in regularly.”

Down the street, Mark Kubo co-owns FireLight Gallery and Framing. The back of the shop is where the custom framing happens, mostly for local customers.

“We’re still dealing with some backorders,” Kubo said. “Items have been on backorder for almost half a year now.”

Kubo said they’ve found ways to save time on their own. Before the pandemic, the frame moldings would be cut by suppliers before getting shipped to Kubo’s business.

“But during the course of the pandemic, as we saw that shipping was becoming a problem in getting supplies, and getting supplies could be a problem as well, we decided to invest in a chopper so we can chop things down to size,” he said.

Having the chopper means he can process some orders in the shop from start to finish. Though he’s been able to adapt, Kubo said, the future is still uncertain as the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus spreads.

Neal Fried is an economist with the Alaska Department of Labor. He said, on a national and international level, the pandemic’s toll on supply chains is unprecedented.

“The supply chain’s going to be studied very heavily in the future as something that we always took for granted in the past,” he said.

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A big piece that we took for granted: labor, Fried said. Even when there’s enough of a supply, a lack of workers can mean that supply stays put. Anytime there’s a COVID outbreak at a warehouse like the one in Centralia, it puts the whole process on pause.

Eventually, things will work themselves out, Fried said. But when will that happen? It’s hard to say, he said.

“You know, a year ago I might have been brave enough to tell you,” he said. “But now that we know we were almost all wrong, I don’t know.”

At the Trading Union, Morrison is putting backup supplies on grocery store shelves. At Firelight, Kubo is cutting his own frames. Whatever way businesses might buy themselves time, Fried said, patience and flexibility are key.

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