Supply Chain Shortages Are Dimming Christmas Displays – The New York Times

Science & Technology

Supported by
With twinkling lights, inflatable Santas and computer chips in high demand, the disruption has not spared those who turn their homes into illuminated wonderlands each December.
Send any friend a story
As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.

The plump penguins with winter scarves were aglow, as was virtually the entire exterior of Leonard Mosley’s house in Del City, Okla. He had accumulated enough lights over 15 years of holiday decorating to spell “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Birthday Jesus” in cursive across his roof and a fence.
Santas, snowmen, candy canes — he had it all, including a first-place title in his city’s 2020 Christmas decorating contest to defend. He estimates that he has invested more than $3,000 in his setup, and yet it wasn’t enough.
“I’m out here hunting for lights,” said Mr. Mosley, 59, as he searched the aisles of a Walmart this month for blue bulbs, taking time off from his job running a barbecue restaurant.
He left empty-handed, joining many holiday home decorators who are struggling to find supplies amid the global supply chain crisis, a lingering disruption that has not spared those who obsessively turn their homes into illuminated wonderlands each December.
This month, retail experts said, evidence of the supply chain upheaval could be seen in the picked-over decoration aisles in stores, and on websites warning customers of the limited inventory for certain holiday staples. Items in short supply include inflatable Santas on motorcycles, red and green twinkling lights, and the computer chips that make neighborhood displays flicker to the beat of holiday songs.
And so Mr. Mosley and other extreme holiday decorators are struggling to enhance their light shows this season. The shortage has created a frenzy of last-minute hunting for items that are now either impossible to find or much more expensive.
Holiday decorating vendors and businesses are having just as much trouble keeping up with demand. They say the hobby has never been as popular as it is now, with the National Retail Federation estimating that the average consumer will spend $231 this year on non-gift holiday purchases, including food, cards and decorations, up from $215 in 2018.
A survey from Rocket Homes estimated that 15 percent of people in the United States spent more than $500 on decorations in 2020. Sales of string lights were up 201 percent in November 2020 from November 2019, according to 1010data, which analyzes consumer habits.
“The hobby, it’s just exploding at a rate that we’ve never seen,” said Rich Bianco, vice president of Transworld Trade Shows, which puts on a yearly convention for Christmas products. “Homes are putting on shows and dropping, like, $10,000 a year on their house.”
Extreme decorators — those who invest more than $10,000 in their displays over several years — are not feeling the supply chain pinch as acutely as beginners, Mr. Bianco said. But because many extreme decorators try to outdo their neighbors — and themselves — every year, the effects of the shortage are still being widely felt.
Dana Soltesz, 47, was struggling to find lights that look like flames for her “ice and fire” light show at her home in Delmont, Pa. She and about 60 of her neighbors were competing this month for a best light show title.
Half of Ms. Soltesz’s house is drizzled in blue and white string lights, the other half in red and white. Finding the red lights “has been like a scavenger hunt,” she said, adding that she had to visit 10 stores before she found enough.
Her neighbors were also having a difficult time. One resorted to making large ornaments out of hula hoops, she said; another used old disco balls. (The winner of the contest managed to find an inflatable Santa riding on a dinosaur.)
Cynthia Branch, 46, of Knoxville, Tenn., was still waiting on a colorful sign that says “joy.”
She placed the order in July at Christmas Expo, a three-day holiday decorating convention that drew about 1,500 attendees to Las Vegas, and was still waiting for it this week.
“We kept saying, ‘Hey, what’s going on with our delivery?’” said Ms. Branch, a veterinary technician who has been decorating her house for Christmas for seven years.
Anyone who drives by her house is not likely to notice. She has thousands of pixels — individual lights that can change color on their own, allowing for more elaborate shows.
Her display, which she begins planning in March, has an animal theme this year, with an illuminated giraffe, flamingo, lion, owl and donkey. There is also a 40-pound glowing snowflake on her roof. On the lawn, a 10-foot “mega tree” composed of pixel lights stands next to a seven-foot tree that flickers and flashes to the beat of songs like “Let It Go,” from the Disney film “Frozen,” during a 30-minute show.
The pandemic sparked the problem. The highly intricate and interconnected global supply chain is in upheaval. Much of the crisis can be traced to the outbreak of Covid-19, which triggered an economic slowdown, mass layoffs and a halt to production. Here’s what happened next:
A reduction in shipping. With fewer goods being made and fewer people with paychecks to spend at the start of the pandemic, manufacturers and shipping companies assumed that demand would drop sharply. But that proved to be a mistake, as demand for some items would surge.
Demand for protective gear spiked. In early 2020, the entire planet suddenly needed surgical masks and gowns. Most of these goods were made in China. As Chinese factories ramped up production, cargo vessels began delivering gear around the globe.
Then, a shipping container shortage. Shipping containers piled up in many parts of the world after they were emptied. The result was a shortage of containers in the one country that needed them the most: China, where factories would begin pumping out goods in record volumes
Demand for durable goods increased. The pandemic shifted Americans’ spending from eating out and attending events to office furniture, electronics and kitchen appliances – mostly purchased online. The spending was also encouraged by government stimulus programs.
Strained supply chains. Factory goods swiftly overwhelmed U.S. ports. Swelling orders further outstripped the availability of shipping containers, and the cost of shipping a container from Shanghai to Los Angeles skyrocketed tenfold.
Labor shortages. Businesses across the economy, meanwhile, struggled to hire workers, including the truck drivers needed to haul cargo to warehouses. Even as employers resorted to lifting wages, labor shortages persisted, worsening the scarcity of goods.
Component shortages. Shortages of one thing turned into shortages of others. A dearth of computer chips, for example, forced major automakers to slash production, while even delaying the manufacture of medical devices.
A lasting problem. Businesses and consumers reacted to shortages by ordering earlier and extra, especially ahead of the holidays, but that has placed more strain on the system. These issues are a key factor in rising inflation and are likely to last for months — if not longer.
“Even though it’s a lot of work, it’s worth it, just making people smile,” Ms. Branch said.
Many vendors have been struggling to help decorators achieve that aura.
Christina Gilbert, the co-owner of Gilbert Engineering USA, a holiday prop design business in Florence, Ariz., said she had received dozens of angry emails and voice mail and Facebook messages from desperate customers who had been waiting longer than usual for plastic snowflakes and pixel-dotted wreaths.
“People are under the gun to get their shows up and running, right? And it is stressful,” she said. “We’re not Amazon,” she added. “We’re a family small business that is a part of the lighting community.”
Jeff Haberman, who teaches classes at decorating conventions, said “almost nobody has cables right now.” Enclosures — weatherproof boxes that protect controllers for lights — are selling on eBay for $45, triple the usual price, he said.
Josh Trees, the owner of, a business that hangs lights in houses and operates in 86 locations across the country, said “supply chain issues definitely affected us because the demand was bigger than any other year that I’ve seen.”
This fall, he convinced a competitor to let him borrow 30,000 bulbs and called his suppliers to plead for cheaper, faster shipments as demand for his services surged by about 35 percent compared to last year.
“It’s been one hell of a crazy year, I’ll tell you that,” Mr. Trees said.
Even as the holiday season winds down, some are still searching for more lights, including Mr. Mosley, the decorator in Oklahoma.
He eventually found his blue bulbs, but he still wanted a set of white chasing lights, which flash in cycles and give the illusion of movement. With Christmas less than a week away, his first-place title hung in the balance.
“I’m going to try to find it before next year,” he said. “I’m going to hunt and hunt.”