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Opinion Don’t rant about short-staffed stores and supply chain woes

Empty shelves at an Ikea store in Brooklyn on Oct. 15. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

For more than a century, business experts have been trying to dial up the United States’ efficiency. Ever since Frederick Taylor published “The Principles of Scientific Management” in 1911, companies have focused on doing things more quickly, and raising consumers’ expectations as a result.

But Taylor’s ideas didn’t take into account the havoc a pandemic might do to supply chains — and how that would blunt what a few months ago seemed like a looming resumption of modern daily life’s zippy pace.

Across the country, Americans’ expectations of speedy service and easy access to consumer products have been crushed like a Styrofoam container in a trash compactor. Time for some new, more realistic expectations.

Fast food is less fast. A huge flotilla of container ships is stuck offshore in California, waiting to unload. Shelves normally stocked with Halloween candy this time of year are empty, as I saw the other day at a Target here in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The issue has become so troublesome — with alarming economic and political ramifications — that the White House is stepping in, urging unions, port operators and big consumer-goods companies to work around the clock (if they aren’t already) to unclog supply pipelines.

American consumers, their expectations pampered and catered to for decades, are not accustomed to inconvenience.

“For generations, American shoppers have been trained to be nightmares,” Amanda Mull wrote in August in the Atlantic, before the supply chain problem turned truly ugly. “The pandemic has shown just how desperately the consumer class clings to the feeling of being served.”

Customers’ persistent whine, “Why don’t they just hire more people?,” sounds feeble in this era of the Great Resignation, especially in industries, such as food service, with reputations for being tough places to work.

Rather than living constantly on the verge of throwing a fit, and risking taking it out on overwhelmed servers, struggling shop owners or late-arriving delivery people, we’d do ourselves a favor by consciously lowering expectations.

I don’t know about where you live, but in Ann Arbor the luxury of blithely tapping on a phone and summoning a restaurant delivery that arrives in 45 minutes is over. There’s a shortage of food-delivery drivers nationwide. The sanity-preserving move is to assume an hour and half for delivery, and then a mere hour and 10 minutes is a pleasant surprise.

“I understand people are getting frustrated, but it’s time for people to take a chill pill,” says Lisa McDonald, owner of TeaHaus, an Ann Arbor shop selling tea and gifts. “I’m just not going to have the things that I usually have. Maybe they aren’t going to get the purple mug, but the blue one is pretty, too.”

The other day I found myself carrying home a loaf of bread in my bare hands because the bakery had run out of bags. Back when we didn’t know how good we had it — circa 2019 — I might have been annoyed by the inconvenience. Now I was just glad the bakery was still in business.

Other Ann Arbor merchants have given me a glimpse of what it’s like on their side of the supply chain misery. Leyla Conlan, owner of the stationery shop The Write Touch by Leyla, says she recently returned from a gift trade show, where vendors were happy to take her orders but warned that they couldn’t promise the same delivery time as they had in the past. The reasons included factory slowdowns, shortages of packing materials and fewer truck drivers.

Steve Mangigian, managing partner at Zingerman’s coffee and candy companies, tells me he used to order paper cups and lids for his baristas about six to eight weeks in advance. Now, the wait is 16 to 18 weeks — possibly longer. “If I can’t get cups to sell my product, what am I supposed to do? The supply chain could literally shut down my business.”

I know Mangigian because I’ve been writing a book about Zingerman’s. It’s scheduled to be published in February. Everything seems on track, but the publishing industry hasn’t been immune to the supply chain snarls. Paper shortages, worker shortages and the traffic jams at shipping ports are endangering holiday books sales, according to CNN.

All I can do is hope for the best. Like everybody else. And keep those expectations reasonable. Eventually the supply chain will get straightened out.

American consumers might have been spoiled, but generations of them have also dealt with shortages of some kind — gasoline in the 1970s, food rationing in the 1940s, housing in the 1920s when cities such as Detroit were booming. Now it’s our turn to make adjustments.