Follow Jani the giraffe
I track a shipping container from China to my doorstep
There’s a 4-foot-tall stuffed giraffe in our living room right now, and I feel very guilty about it. Guilty because of the sheer American-ness of the purchase—don’t just give me any giraffe, make it HUGE!—guilty because it sits among other toys made of plastic, and most of all guilty because I now know exactly what it took to get it from the factory in China to my doorstep.
Last month, I started to think about how inflation is one of those economic terms that gets thrown around a lot without anyone really understanding what it means. Ask an economist how they know there’s inflation in the economy and they’ll say it’s because prices are rising. (The definition of inflation: a general increase in prices.) But why are prices rising? Well, because there’s inflation. My editor and I decided there must be a better way to illustrate why prices are rising right now, especially because inflation seems so tied to problems in the supply chain.
Here’s the piece: Why Is Inflation Rising? Let This Stuffed Giraffe Explain
Some background: I used some of my very helpful contacts who sell things on Amazon (I’ve written a lot on Amazon, here is one of my favorites, about shoddily-made lithium batteries from Amazon exploding) to find a toy company that was seeing costs rise, and has had to increase the price of its products. I talked with Mike Molson Hart, the president of a company called Viahart, that sells plush stuffed toys on Amazon, and he agreed to help me track one of his toys from the factory in China to my doorstep to show me how costs had risen every step of the way. For starters, a container now costs him about $21,000 to send across the ocean, up from $4,700 before the pandemic.
One of the most fascinating things about following Jani the giraffe and the container that held her was how hard she was to track. Viahart shared emails with me in which they kept asking where the container was and when it would arrive, and no one ever seemed to know. At first, the company told me the container arrived on a ship that had gone from Shanghai to Canada to the Port of Long Beach, but it turned out it had actually been offloaded in Shanghai and sat around for two weeks before it got on another vessel which went to other Chinese ports and then the Port of LA. “But what is that rail departure notice you sent last week? Where is the container now?” Viahart asked the freight forwarding company that was in charge of shipping the container, when they found out the giraffe was not going to arrive anytime near when it was supposed to.
It’s much harder for a company like Viahart, which is shipping one container at a time, to get on a ship and know when its products will arrive, then it is for a company like Walmart, that can probably run a whole ship. Right now, “there’s a war” for space on container ships, a logistics expert told me, and whoever pays the most wins.
Even when the container arrived at the Port of LA, it sat for more than a month, for reasons no one could ever explain to me. This is the type of email Viahart would get when it would inquire about the status of the container:
Every step of the way, as labor shortages and congestion delayed the container more and more, everyone from the railroad to the shipping line to FedEx raised prices. It costs about $116 to make Jani and get her to my doorstep now, compared to around $86 before the pandemic. A big amount of that cost increase comes from both shipping costs rising, and Viahart taking on more risk because they don’t know when and if products will arrive.
The story has great graphics and photos—one of the advantages to working at Time is some of the excellent photographers and designers we can partner with for stories. Please check it out, and here is my Tweet about it for those of you on Twitter:
Fun fact: Jani traveled from Los Angeles to the Texas warehouse on BNSF, one of America’s major railways. For this story, I revisited a piece I wrote more than a decade ago for the LA Times, where I visited a BNSF rail yard at the LA ports to look at the resurgence of rail. (Warren Buffet had just bought BNSF.) For the Jani story, I even worked with the same BNSF spokeswoman who had taken me on the tour back then.
Logistics, like inflation, may be a boring word, but what happens behind the scenes to get things from one place to another is mind-boggling. Read the story and hopefully you’ll understand a little more about both!