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Retailers start feeling the pinch of West Coast port shipping delays

AirSplat CEO Kenneth Wu, in front of an aisle of airsoft guns.
AirSplat CEO Kenneth Wu, in front of an aisle of airsoft guns.
Corey Bridwell/KPCC

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Tensions keep building over congestion and delays at West Coast ports from Tacoma to Long Beach. Retailers and other businesses that depend on goods moving from cargo vessels to warehouses to store shelves are getting anxious, as shipping companies and the union representing dockworkers blame each other for the cargo slowdown

The owner of Irwindale-based says whoever’s to blame, the cargo backlog is costing his company money.  

AirSplat sells paint ball and Airsoft guns, as well as the tiny pellets they fire.  Around 60 employees sell and fulfill orders out of an 80,000 square foot warehouse in Irwindale. A lot of the products come from China and Taiwan, traveling through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.  AirSplat founder Kenneth Wu says he started seeing delays a month ago, and they've gotten worse.

"We just got a shipment last week, which was at the port for about almost two weeks -  a week and a half ," Wu told KPCC. "Usually this is a 24 to 48-hour turnaround." 

Port officials say a shortage of truck chassis and truck drivers are causing cargo containers to sit on terminal docks once they’re off the ships.  Wu points out the longer his containers sit, the more fees his company pays.  Also, when sporting goods retailers like Sports Chalet and Big 5 purchase his products, the order comes with a cancellation date. 

"We’re kind of at their mercy to allow us to give us extra time to deliver the goods they’ve ordered from us," Wu says. "We’re very fortunate because Big 5 and Sports Chalet are very generous in that manner, while other vendors penalize you even if you’re a day late." 

The National Retail Federation said Monday that import cargo volumes at the nation’s major retail container ports hit record levels in September and October.  Citing a monthly Global Port Tracker that it publishes with Hackett Associates, the Washington-based NRF said retailers rushed to bring merchandise into the country ahead of a possible shutdown of West Coast ports.

The Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have been negotiating a new labor contract to cover longshore union workers at 29 West Coast ports for the last six months.  Together, they've vowed to avoid a work stoppage and keep bargaining until a deal is reached.  But last week, as news of port congestion continued, the two sides began blaming each other. 

“Retailers have done all they can to stock their shelves and build up inventories in case the worst should happen,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in a statement. Reiterating a request made last week, Gold added: “We believe it’s time for President Obama to send in a federal mediator and do what it takes to reach an agreement that will work to the benefit of not just labor and management but all the businesses and consumers who depend on these ports.”

Kenneth Wu of AirSplat says, as a smaller retailer that mostly moves goods directly from manufacturers to consumers, he's got more "breathing room" than big box retailers like Wal-Mart and Target. 

"As long we get our stuff in a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, we're usually in the clear." Wu says.  "Still, we're coming up very close to having some issues with our holiday sales if we can't get our merchandise out of the port."