The furnishings big Ikea is understood for flattening tables, chairs and even beds into compact bundles that may be lugged house in automotive trunks and pickup beds.

Now its executives are utilizing that experience to squeeze as many seasonal choices as doable into large metallic containers for ocean transport. They prioritized light-weight and pliable — pillows and throws, wine glasses and plates — and vacation perennials like kids’s easels and toys, stated Javier Quiñones, chief government of Ikea U.S. The desks, chairs and residential workplace equipment that have been huge sellers early within the pandemic are on the again burner till subsequent yr.

“It’s a calculation,” he stated. “What’s it that we’d like proper now?”

The transport container, as soon as an peculiar cog within the world provide chain, has grow to be a coveted and costly lifeline for the nation’s retailers and producers. They’re in such quick provide that corporations are having to rethink how they inventory cabinets, inserting a premium on smaller, extra compact merchandise: squishy toys, headphones and slippers as a substitute of, say, play kitchens, televisions and climbing boots.

Some corporations are even going so far as shrinking toy packages by 30% to save lots of on prices.

To maximise each cubic inch of those 40-foot containers, retailers and freight corporations should grasp a math train with a dizzying array of solutions, whether or not that’s two pickup vans, 500 synthetic Christmas timber or 80,000 Pop It fidget toys.

“Name it the Jenga provide chain,” stated Suketu Gandhi, world chief for digital provide chain on the consulting agency Kearney. “With out transport containers, the entire thing tumbles.”

The container scarcity, economists say, is a byproduct of the pandemic. Coronavirus-related shutdowns disrupted the worldwide motion of freight whereas boosting demand for shopper items. Practically 26 million 20-foot containers’ price of products are anticipated to reach in the USA this yr, up 18% from a yr in the past, based on the Nationwide Retail Federation’s World Port Tracker. In the meantime, the shortage of employees to load and unload at ports and warehouses, in addition to truck drivers to move them, has stranded thousands and thousands of containers.

However the treatment isn’t so simple as simply churning out extra containers, transport consultants say, as a result of the scarcity is carefully intertwined with enterprise and border closures, in addition to labor shortages and elementary shifts within the economic system.

Container producers, largely concentrated in China, are anticipated to churn out 5.4 million new containers this yr, about double their pre-pandemic output, based on Drewry Transport Consultants. However these efforts are being hampered by shortages in uncooked supplies, similar to metal and lumber, in addition to welders. The manufacturing course of might be lengthy and expensive, too: Every container takes about two years and $100,000 to make, based on Niels Larsen, president of DSV Air & Sea North America, a worldwide transport and logistics agency.

Consequently, the a few of the world’s greatest retailers, like Ikea, are buying their very own containers. Many others, together with Walmart, Goal, Residence Depot and Costco, are chartering ships to get high-priority items in on time.

The White Home final week introduced measures to spice up capability at U.S. ports, together with Lengthy Seaside and Los Angeles, however retailers say these efforts will do little to assist this vacation season.

Magi Raible, proprietor of LiteGear Luggage in California, spends weeks, generally months, scouting out transport containers to ferry her merchandise from China to the USA. When she does safe one, she’s grow to be strategic about what she packs inside: Ponchos as a substitute of suitcases, tote baggage as a substitute of carry-ons.

Transport prices shortly add up, even for probably the most compact objects. Ponchos, for instance, now price $5 apiece to move, in contrast with 50 cents a yr in the past, she stated.

“Once you go from $2,000 per container to $20,000, the mathematics simply doesn’t work anymore for large, cumbersome issues,” she stated. “I’ve needed to go away behind some in style objects as a result of it’s simply too costly to ship proper now.”

What goes inside has grow to be a fastidiously choreographed calculation of a product’s measurement, demand and value.

Stanley Black & Decker is giving DeWalt influence drivers and batteries precedence over miter saws and hedge trimmers as a result of “they’re simpler to pack and you may actually get numerous them in there,” stated Guru Bandekar, the corporate’s chief provide chain officer for world instruments and storage.

Sure shops are going huge on vacation decor and Christmas creation calendars that may in any other case be stashed in storage till subsequent yr. Analysts say electronics makers, which have been hard-pressed to import sufficient big-screen TVs and home equipment, are more and more stocking up on smaller items like headphones and tablets.

Specialty toymaker Manhattan Toy Co. is zeroing in on its best-selling and most worthwhile objects, similar to Child Stella plush dolls, Winkel plastic teething toys and light-weight Skwish rattles, based on the corporate’s president, Nora O’Leary. Bigger picket toys must wait till subsequent yr.

Even then, orders are on the whim of the provision chain. At the very least one container of toys has been sitting on a dock in Los Angeles since September, she stated. One other, crammed with the corporate’s Rock ‘n Roary dinosaur rocker, was on a ship that caught fireplace final month off the coast of Vancouver, B.C.

“We’re packing containers with merchandise that we all know are going to promote,” O’Leary stated. “When freight prices six or seven instances what it did a yr in the past, you’ll be able to’t take dangers on new designs.”

The trendy-day transport container was conceived 65 years in the past by American entrepreneur Malcolm McLean as a technique to shortly transfer items from vans onto ships and again once more. Earlier than that, longshoremen needed to load ships by hand, which was a protracted and expensive course of, stated Willy Shih, a professor of provide chain administration at Harvard Enterprise Faculty.

“Transport containers have revolutionized world commerce,” he stated. “They’ve grow to be the spine of our economic system — not just for transporting dry items like washing machines and footwear, but additionally strawberries and grains and frozen meals.”

However, he stated, a rising commerce imbalance — through which the USA imports extra from Asia than it exports — has exacerbated an already difficult dynamic. Ships that usher in items are sometimes caught for weeks or months ready to be unloaded at U.S. ports, rail yards and factories. And pandemic-related shutdowns and delays that started in early 2020 are including to the pressure.

“The world economic system remains to be making an attempt to catch up after it basically paused in the course of the coronary heart of the pandemic,” stated Seiji Steimetz, chair of the economics division at California State College at Lengthy Seaside. “There are extra imports coming into this nation than ever earlier than, which is stressing all the provide chain.”

The USA imported $47.4 billion in items from China in September, a 15% enhance from the identical interval a yr in the past and 18% larger than 2019, whereas exports to China fell to a seven-month low, based on Commerce Division knowledge.

The pandemic, Steimetz stated, ushered in modifications in the best way individuals store. Extra People are shopping for on-line from corporations like Amazon, Walmart and Goal, which lean closely on imports. COVID-related restrictions that stored households nearer to house led to extra spending on items and fewer on providers. Gross sales of latest properties, vehicles and toys have all surged in the course of the pandemic as customers threw fewer {dollars} at motels, eating places and bars.

Sky Citadel Toys President Joshua Loerzel says retailers have been asking for toys with smaller footprints for simpler ocean transport. So he lately shrank the packaging of his LetsGlow Studio by 20%. Now he can match 11,900 of the style craft kits right into a 40-foot container as a substitute of 8,700.

Such downsizing goes in opposition to each conference within the toy trade, the place greater has at all times been higher, he stated. However now, as a substitute of making an attempt to seize customers’ consideration with massive, flashy packaging, the main target is on getting toys on cabinets.

“Once you solely get restricted bookings, it turns into all in regards to the smaller merchandise you can pack in,” he stated. “Numbers one by means of 5 on my checklist to Santa? Transport containers.”

This story was initially revealed at washingtonpost.com. Learn it right here.