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Shoppers know more about how goods get to their door after 2021's supply-chain issues

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Where do holiday gifts come from? Well, Santa Claus, of course, am I right? Well, sometimes, he deputizes an aunt or a grandma, and those presents make a long journey - not by sleigh, but by container ship or truck. And this year, many of us have become hyper-aware of all the stops and all the obstacles along the way. And that is why we have NPR's Alina Selyukh tracking Santa's supply chain right now. Hello, Alina.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hello. Hello. Quite the job for me, huh?

CHANG: (Laughter) Yeah. I mean, this phrase, supply chain - it's become sort of a household term this year. I mean, never would have imagined it would become that. But how do you think our supply chain woes have influenced our shopping habits this year?

SELYUKH: It looks like people shopped for gifts super early because of it. A lot of people did, and the retailers encouraged it. This year, we are out doing record-setting shopping. So stores tried to kind of spread out the sales. I feel like we barely got past Halloween before Christmas lights and other holiday decorations...

CHANG: Totally.

SELYUKH: ...Were flying off the shelves. I talked to a lot of shoppers who would normally start in December but this year rushed to get through their lists. One of them is Shannon Pitton who is a special education teacher in western Colorado.

SHANNON PITTON: We started very early, like, the beginning of November, which is way early for us because we were worried about things getting here in time. And actually, one of the things that we bought for both of our kids, they won't be here until February. And we ordered it, like, three weeks ago.

CHANG: Oh, man.

SELYUKH: That's a two-month timeline.

CHANG: Yeah.

SELYUKH: She did buy other gifts that arrived on time, but this was quite the new experience for her.

CHANG: Wait, what was this gift that she bought for both of her kids?

SELYUKH: It's a play couch that is actually made in the U.S., but it needs parts and fabrics from overseas.

CHANG: Right.

SELYUKH: And if there's one takeaway that most shoppers learned about their goods this year, I feel like it's that - holy smokes - logistics. It's complicated and expensive, right? Even supply chain management experts were saying this. Like, obviously, we know, generally, that a lot of our goods come from China. But this year really hit it home in a personal way just how much the stuff we buy depends on only a few countries, mainly in Asia. Here's Tony Bell from Rutgers Business School.

TONY BELL: So no surprise that we're having a lot of the challenges where organizations are now forced to really think more about how they look at alternative sourcing.

SELYUKH: To give you one example, Nike this year had a major disruption because it makes most of its shoes and about a third of its clothes in Vietnam. And for a while, there were factory closures, and Nike had to cut production of 130 million units.

CHANG: Wow.

SELYUKH: They're not moving their factories out of Vietnam, but it did hurt their sales.

CHANG: OK. So one factor is a lot of stuff gets produced way far away. But another reason for supply chain disruptions has been a lack of workers - right? - like, at stores and at warehouses. How big exactly has that impact been?

SELYUKH: Well, workers have been quitting at record rates, and there are over a million jobs still unfilled in retail. So stores and warehouses are struggling to fix their understaffing issues, and they have been raising wages. Retail pay grew more this year than it did in years prior. That's part of a big shift in labor power that we've seen lately. There were strikes at major brands, like Kellogg and Nabisco. As of two weeks ago, Starbucks workers voted to form their one unionized store in the U.S. That was in Buffalo, N.Y. Just today, actually, there's a walkout by some Amazon workers in Illinois, and the organizers there told me understaffing is their biggest complaint because it affects the safety of workers who are there. A few weeks ago, Amazon said, for the first time, that it was not enough workers rather than storage space that was its biggest constraint. And the big question now is how long-lasting this kind of power advantage is for workers, whether we see more unions formed or wage growth next year.

CHANG: That is NPR's Alina Selyukh, Santa tracker. Thank you, Alina.

SELYUKH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.