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Local outdoors suppliers feel pinch of worldwide shortages

News Photo by Julie Riddle Employee Jimmy Kriniak talks to a customer at Sports Unlimited RV in Alpena on Thursday, flanked by a limited selection of offroading helmets hard to come by during a worldwide shipping slowdown.

ALPENA — Getting away from it all may have to wait, outdoors sales outlets say, as a worldwide shipping slowdown backlogs orders of camping accessories and other outdoor gear.

At least there’s toilet paper, said Jimmy Kriniak, employee at Sports Unlimited RV in Alpena.

Last year, the business struggled to get the specialty toilet paper made for recreational vehicle bathrooms when businesses around the country shut down in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Like many products in the outdoors equipment industry, camper toilet paper had to come from across the ocean when U.S. storehouses ran out.

Demand for overseas goods has boomed in recent months, leading to a backlog of container vessels stalled offshore along the U.S. coasts — and around the world — according to the Wall Street Journal.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Jimmy Kriniak, employee at Sports Unlimited RV in Alpena, holds a seat cushion in a camper on Thursday. A shortage of foam to make the cushions is holding up camper sales, Kriniak said.

Pandemic-related safety measures at ports have slowed the unloading of the jam-packed container ships, which many wait at anchor for weeks as other ships take their turn. As of Saturday, 18 container ships lingered at anchor near Los Angeles and Long Beach, California, according to the Marine Exchange Twitter feed.

Shipping costs are double what they used to be for the same product, Kriniak said.

“Nothing has changed,” Kriniak said. “It’s just, ‘Hey, do you want it? Here’s how much it is.'”

Cargo languishing on ocean vessels will make its way to Alpena eventually, Kriniak said.

Toilet paper isn’t the only commodity hard to come by for hopeful campers. Camper repairs have to wait on air conditioning supplies and power components. Batteries elude businesses who have sold their current stock.

The lot at Bewbaker’s Housing and RV in Onaway isn’t empty, but orders come in more slowly than usual, and customers may have a harder time getting what they want, an employee said.

Meanwhile, hundreds of RVs fill manufacturer holding lots, unsellable because producers can’t get the parts to finish them, such as the foam needed to make dinette bench cushions.

“You can have a camper,” Kriniak said. “You can have it right now. You just don’t have any place to sit.”

As vaccination numbers increase and residents feel safer getting out, demand for camping supplies and other outdoor recreation items has risen even over last year’s high demand, but local shops have little to offer.

Onaway Outfitters owner Roger Marsh has no kayaks for customers this season. He had to place his order by November, and manufacturers — some closed, some understaffed — wouldn’t return his phone calls and emails to let him request inventory.

Now, manufacturers are back in business, but the raw product needed to make goods isn’t available. Firearms and ammunition are scarce because steel mills are so behind, Marsh said.

“It’s not just one or two things,” Marsh said. “The whole system is backed up.”

At Sports Unlimited, customers want all-terrain vehicles, but the store has few to offer, and even helmets are stuck in containers thousands of miles away, Kriniak said.

Long-time customers who have been camping for generations have mostly been patient when told they have to wait for the supplies they want, he said. Some newer customers, eager to get away from home into the relative safety of the outdoors, don’t understand when employees tell them about the backlog.

Kriniak understands their frustration.

“You see the same four walls all the time, you want to get away,” Kriniak said.

On the upside, shortages of everyday goods may, Kriniak said, help people appreciate ready access to life’s essentials.

“We took that for granted,” Kriniak said. “How do you take for granted toilet paper?”

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