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Holy Ship! A Supply Chain Expert Visits America’s Port & Brings Back Lessons for Sellers

By land, sky, and sea, Thrasio’s Mustafa Cokol visits the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The takeaway for sellers? The problems aren’t going away anytime soon. The time to focus on supply chain strategies is now.

A container ship outside the Port of Los AngelesIt’s just before Thanksgiving, and Mustafa Cokol, Thrasio’s senior global mile logistics manager, has made the trek from Boston to Southern California to fulfill a mission: oversee last-minute Turkey 5 operations and make sure there are no shipping delays. He’s implementing a strategy called cross-docking, in which products are unloaded from one truck and immediately reloaded onto another to continue their journey – no storage or waiting required. “We don’t want any disappointed customers,” he says.

Mustafa is a bit of a supply-chain disaster enthusiast. (He keeps pictures of the ship-clogged Suez Canal and storm-battered cargo ships on his phone.) Thanks to their size and proximity to Asia, the combined Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach handle 40% of the country’s container imports, which makes them a good place to witness the problems firsthand.

Which is why Mustafa is now riding a powerboat outside of the Port of Los Angeles. More than 85 container ships sit at anchor in every direction, each one like a skyscraper floating on its side.

The closest one is named Yogi. Its deck is the size of 2 football fields, and it’s full of red, blue, and green shipping containers stacked 6 high. “Those blue ones are ours,” Mustafa says. “We have 80 of them on board.” He estimates that together, all the ships currently anchored hold about 400,000 containers, enough to reach from here to Boston.

The Yogi arrived a month ago from China. It has been sitting here ever since, waiting for space to open up at the port so it can unload, fill back up with containers, and head out again. The usual wait time to unload is a few days at most. The Yogi has now spent more time at anchor than it did crossing the Pacific.

In his 15 years of experience in global supply chains, Mustafa has never seen things this choked up. “On a scale of 1 to 10, this is a 10,” he says. The worst he’s seen before now? “Maybe a 3.”

Mustafa is more familiar than most with the problems plaguing global supply chains. Ports are backed up around the country due to a combination of pandemic pressures and transportation bottlenecks – everything from COVID-related factory shutdowns in China to limits on how many hours American truckers are allowed to drive per day.

There’s nothing like a horizon full of massive idling ships to bring a problem from abstraction to reality, Mustafa says. “It’s unbelievable. It’s insane.”

Supply chain management now requires more vigilance, more attention, and more savvy

Supply Chain Containers at the Port of Los AngelesOnce upon a time, supply chain was a function that, well, mostly functioned, allowing business owners to focus on other areas. That’s no longer the case. What he’s seeing makes it even more certain: supply chain problems aren’t going away soon. Supply chain management now requires more vigilance, more attention, and more savvy. Ecommerce sellers, Mustafa says, need to be open to adaptation and change. “It may be a good time to consider if LA is still the best choice for you,” Mustafa says. “It used to take less time and cost less, but is it still the case if you wait for your cargo an extra month?”

To keep on top of shipments, many business owners are employing free online trackers to follow their containers from when it departs to when it’s actually available for pickup at the destination. “It gives you a real-time look, which gives you the ability to make business decisions in other areas,” he says.

Adaptation and advance planning are the new normal in supply chain management

Mustafa also hopped in a helicopter to see the port from the air. It’s packed wall to wall with shipping containers, both empty and full, with a line of trucks leading to the entrance. This shows how the delay to offload containers is just part of the congestion, he says. Trucks have to wait to get into the port, and for every full container they pick up, they often drop off an empty one, an endless cycle that can become clogged at almost any point. “Even at 4 AM, there’s a line of trucks waiting outside,” he says.

“It’s a hot potato thing,” Mustafa says. “Last year we didn’t have enough containers, so China started making more. But what do you do with the empty ones?”

Opening ports to 24/7 operations hasn’t made much difference yet. Drivers still need appointments to pick up and drop off containers, and there are other California-specific regulations to contend with, including limits on how old trucks and even their engines can be.

After 3 days of reconnaissance, Mustafa headed home to Boston with a new appreciation of the full scope of the problem and how much, if anything, we can do to fix it.

“What I learned more than anything is that there’s no magic resolution to this problem in the short-term,” Mustafa says. “It shows the importance of planning and continually adapting to the changes, including the unexpected ones.”

Advance planning is critical to avoid costly mistakes like running out of stock, or having to shell out for air shipping, he says. Before his visit, Mustafa had already increased his lead times. Now, he says,  “I’m going to push my lead times even farther. Seeing all that gave me a new urgency.”

By the latest estimates, container ships will still be parked off the coast of L.A. through 2023. It’s an unprecedented situation, Mustafa says – but like every crisis, the supply chain crunch can also be a learning experience. “It is definitely exciting. Every day is a new challenge.”

Mustafa Cokol is Thrasio’s senior manager of global logistics and an adjunct professor at Boston University, where he teaches graduate courses in international trade & international logistics. When he’s not negotiating supply chain contracts or solving supply chain problems, he likes to spend time with his daughters Ela, 8, and Leyla, 5. According to them, his job is shipping boxes and teaching big kids.

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