A while ago I was chatting with former BGQ reviewer and all-around great person AnnaMaria and she mentioned a shipping container shortage in China. This was the first I heard about this, so I asked her to elaborate. Apparently, word was that because of COVID, less output was happening around the world and many countries weren’t exporting as much due to various lockdowns. So while shipping containers were leaving China at a fast rate, they were not coming back quickly enough to be used again. Curious, I did some digging.
I did find some articles after a few cursory Google searches. Such as this one asking where all the empty containers are or this YouTube video that attempted to explain why there could be a shortage. However, I still wanted to know just how widespread this problem was and what it meant for the board game industry.
So, I figured I’d start at the source. I contacted a few factories in China to see if they could shed any light on the situation. The few I got a response back from were able to provide me with a little bit of insight. Christopher Frye works at Liya International. His factory works with publishers such as Games Workshop, Days of Wonder, Gale Force 9, and Steamforged Games (to name a few). Surprisingly, Chris told me that he’s not seeing a shortage of empty containers, but of storage space.
For example, a factory yard might be able to hold six 40’ containers in its yard. Once they are ready to be picked up, a transportation company needs to take them to the docks, clearing room for new, empty containers. However, transportation companies have been overbooked lately (more on that later) and what is usually a day or two turn around was turning into a week and a half.
This is causing a ripple effect at the factory. There is usually a tight turn around of these containers for space reasons. Say a container gets loaded on the 16th and is scheduled to be picked up on the 18th. Then, a new empty set of containers are scheduled to arrive on the 19th. In normal times, this dance works like clockwork with products moving out at a steady pace.
However, in these times, a simple 1.5-week backlog is causing massive delays. Those containers that were supposed to arrive on the 19th? All of a sudden they have nowhere to go, so they can’t be delivered. The floor in the factory keeps filling up with products with no way to leave and, with space being at a premium, this causes massive delays all over the board.
So in Chris’s estimation, the true problem is space and labor, not really containers. If some places are running out of containers it might also be cost. As prices on shipping, containers, and transfers have all gone up and some forwarders are not willing to eat that cost.
So that’s an interesting take. It’s not a shortage of containers, but manpower to move things where they need to be. But I kept digging. I reached out to Panda Manufacturing, one of the bigger board game manufacturers that works with Stonemaier, Z-Man, Leder Games, and others. The Panda Team (I didn’t get a name from them) did say that they feel there is a shipping container shortage in China, but wasn’t sure how it was affecting the board game industry. They suggested I reach out to a logistics and fulfillment company for their take.
Good idea! So I contacted a couple of them. I first emailed with Josh at Fulfillrite. When I asked him if there was a shipping container shortage affecting the board game industry, he responded “Most definitely.” Unfortunately, when I asked him for details on what he’s seen or experienced I didn’t get a reply. So not much to go on there.
Lucky for me, Katie Hooper of Funagain Logistics had a lot of insight! She started off by telling me about how back in early 2020, things in China shut down (as you might remember) first due to Chinese New Year, and then for COVID lockdowns (some as long as a month and a half). However, there were only a few delays caused by this, but nothing too crazy. As the year continued and lockdowns happened in many other countries, she started seeing more delays across the board. Costs also started going up, but not obscenely so. It wasn’t until October where things started to really come to a head.
“Starting around October,” Katie explained “we started having some trouble booking space quickly. What usually was a 1-week turnaround turned into two or two and a half. A bit of a cost jump around this time but that’s pretty normal for the time of year. Things started getting bad when it came to space in about mid-November. I started seeing larger projects get pushed off of scheduled voyages due to lack of space and our forwarder’s quotes were starting to get higher than I expected.”
“As it stands now, we’re seeing projects get rolled multiple times for lack of space/overbooked vessels. It’s tough to keep this from happening with luxury items or smaller loads but even in a normally busy time I haven’t seen it happen more than once, maybe twice. I’ve seen a couple of projects rolled 4 times or more in the last month.”
The other issue she’s seeing, other than lack of space, is cost increases. Things are ending up 20-50% more expensive to ship, which I’m guessing due to the supply and demand effect weighing in.
Finally, I talked briefly with Arthur Petersen, the Production Manager for Petersen Games. He basically confirmed what others have been saying. “Since the beginning of November, many forwarders have trouble finding containers and vessel space to ship in, making freight shipping arrangements that normally take a few days require weeks or more.”
What’s more interested is that he said, according to one of his factories: “this is a situation where every hour counts – even a day of delay in receiving a shipping confirmation could result in serious shipping delays.”
What does this all mean for the board game industry? I think we need to all expect to have new games arriving much later than we’d want. If you are backing any Kickstarter right now, chances are you’ve seen an update at some point about a delay. It’s affecting everything right now. Fantasy Flight Games even recently announced that all of their monthly Marvel Champions Releases will be pushed back.
So while shipping container shortages appear to be only part of the problem, that ended up being a small cog in a much bigger wheel. Most people I talked to aren’t expecting things to start easing up until after the Chinese New Year in February. The perfect storm of holiday product demand, COVID affecting every part of the world, manufacturing backlogs, and country lockdowns have put a massive strain on the world’s largest manufacturing country.