July 23, 2022

Article at WSJ

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How to Deal With Product Shortages: Build Your Own Supply Chain

You know those go-with-the-flow people who will eat whatever you put in front of them?

I am not one of these people.

Much to my horror, I am the exact opposite. I follow a very restrictive ketogenic diet that means I am pretty much unable to order from any menu without adding a half-dozen special requests. I’m extremely particular about an extraordinary range of consumer purchases, from my macadamia nuts to my chocolate to my kitchen spray to the one kind of garbage can the dog can’t get into. My children are even pickier than I am.

But there is an upside to this kind of pickiness, which has proved valuable during recent product shortages: When you have to have your exact thing in your exact way, you get pretty good at building and maintaining your own supply chain. And when your biggest concern is preserving access to quirky or esoteric products, your supply-chain efforts don’t have to involve stockpiles that deprive other people of their essentials.

Some of my tactics are pretty intuitive, and some involve extremes you’ll only need to resort to if you find yourself on the wrong side of an international border. Some will feel ridiculously complex to many people who aren’t quite as, well, off the wall as I am when it comes to food. Still, if you’re even half as picky as I am, you may find these strategies useful—for now or for the next time the inevitable shortages come our way.

Panic early

Whenever you see a natural-disaster story—or even something like last year’s Suez Canal traffic jam—think about the possible supply-chain impacts, and get to work. Last winter, the Pacific Northwest experienced extreme flooding. As soon as I saw the news that Vancouver was now cut off from the rest of Canada by both rail and road, I realized this was going to make it hard for me to get the large-size rainboots I had been vaguely shopping for, and which we now needed more than ever. So I immediately ordered boots for everyone in the family on Amazon while they were still in stock in local warehouses—ensuring we were able to stay warm and dry throughout the rainy winter.

Know your own essentials

My autistic child mostly eats pizza, and he eats pizza only from one pizza shop. So early in Covid, we ordered and froze a supply of 10 pizzas, which I stuck in our extra freezer on a shelf labeled “National Emergency Pizza Reserve.” That was enough to keep us in pizza if our house went into quarantine, but we realized 10 pizzas wouldn’t last long if Covid restrictions actually closed the restaurant for an extended period. To prepare for that scenario, we got in the habit of ordering an extra pizza every time we ordered. Happily, the restaurant never shut down—but we eventually ate through the backlog, and our period of ordering six pizzas a week endeared us to the family that runs the shop. Knowing what counts as essential in your home is key to recognizing and managing your own supply-chain risks.

Building relationships, like with a local farmer who sells fresh eggs, can ease supply disruptions. Right, part of the pizza reserve in the freezer for the author's son.

Find a farmer

We get our eggs directly from a local farmer who drives into the city every two weeks. When the flood washed out her farm, it interrupted our supply, but our direct relationship with her meant we had more information on how the recovery process was going, and we were able to plan our shopping (and menus) accordingly. (It also guided our donations to the recovery effort.) Subscribing to local farmers for key staples is a great way to avoid competing for grocery-store supplies, and to get ingredients that are deliciously fresh.

Storage is the key to supply-chain management

If you live in a small space with a small refrigerator and freezer, your ability to manage supply-chain disruptions will be relatively limited, just because you don’t have the space to store an extra week or two of supplies. By adding additional cupboards to our dining room and buying an extra freezer, we’ve dramatically expanded our storage capacity, which makes it possible for us to weather the ups and downs in the supply of our core staples. Still, sometimes supply and storage space get out of whack. When Amazon stopped shipping my preferred brand of protein chips, I ordered big shipments from two different suppliers, and stocked up when I found the chips in a local store. Then Amazon sent six weeks of missing chips in a single shipment, and suddenly every cupboard and surface of our house was piled high with chips. Do you know how long it takes to eat through 70 bags of chips? Not nearly as long as it should have!

Tap the aftermarket

When you can’t find what you want in a store, consider the possibility that somebody else already has it—and will be willing to sell it to you on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace or eBay. When IKEA couldn’t keep up with demand for its ubiquitous Billy bookcases, we found bookcases to match our current set by looking on Facebook. We paid less, and got older, better-made bookcases that matched the ones we already had.

Subscribe for security

Setting up subscriptions with your favorite retailers may protect you from the ebb and flow of supply. Even when supplies ran scarce in grocery stores, the longstanding subscribers of our local organic grocery supplier were able to keep getting their orders filled. And even though I’d paused our Amazon subscribe-and-save subscription to toilet paper months before the pandemic T.P. crisis, I found that I was able to reactivate our subscription—and get an actual toilet-paper shipment—at a time when there was nothing available in stores and Amazon itself wasn’t accepting new toilet-paper orders.

Build your own shipping company

As a Canadian resident with American consumer loyalties (and citizenship), I’m glad that I live close enough to the U.S. border to make regular forays to Target, Trader Joe’s and other favorite suppliers. But I hadn’t realized how obsessive I was about getting my preferred U.S. products until the border closed during Covid—at which point I went to extreme lengths to get my American staples. I tracked down the company that bakes the Parmesan crisps I usually buy at Whole Foods, only to find that they are too fragile to mail. So I built my own shipping system by using a combination of an on-demand errand service (to pick up my crisps and drive them to my border mailbox), a mailbox company (to take delivery), a customs broker (to clear my crisps across the border) and a courier (to drive them the last 50 miles from the border mailbox to my house). Even I have to admit that referring to Parmesan crisp access as an emergency requires air quotes. But I think I deserve some credit for something in this case. I’m just not sure what.

What is essential in this whole endeavor is to know your own level of resilience: How flexible can you be about what you eat, wear or use, and how long can you survive without your preferred options? The more particular you are, the more creative and resourceful you need to be in ensuring you protect your supply—whatever the world throws your way.

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Dr. Samuel is a technology researcher and co-author of “Remote, Inc.: How to Thrive at Work…Wherever You Are.” Email her at reports@wsj.com.