Mr Müller-Blech, 62, is the Christmas King of Germany, an Asian importer of mass-produced decorations which he resells across the West alongside the hand-blown glassware his family has been making since. 13 generations.
Mr Müller-Blech’s slow and expensive global journeys of baubles, trees and ornaments show how strained all aspects of international transport are ahead of the busy Christmas season.
The onset of the pandemic and the ensuing trade collapse slowed ships, which, along with their containers, were then out of position when consumer demand rebounded this year. Continuing Covid-19 outbreaks have meant workers missed shifts, closed some port terminals, keeping truck drivers at home and slowing cross-border movement. The blockade of the Suez Canal in March further muddied the timetable.
Around the world, toy makers, booksellers, major retailers and manufacturers are already warning that some products won’t be in place in time for Christmas, while additional shipping costs and delays add to bills buyers and sellers.
For Mr. Müller-Blech’s Inge’s Christmas Decor GmbH, the cost of renting a 40ft container from Asia to Europe has increased tenfold to $ 18,000, and it comes up to eight weeks late. Its shipment to the Christmas Haus store in Gettysburg was due to arrive at the Port of Baltimore in June. He left Germany at the end of August and arrived on Tuesday. Now it’s on a truck.
When Mr. Müller-Blech was a child he helped out in the family business and every day was Christmas. Most of the traditions that the West now knows as Christmas come from Germany. Today, Mr. Müller-Blech runs a museum in his hometown of Neustadt bei Coburg, in central Germany, devoted to the history of Christmas decorations, and ships some 4,500 types and models of decoration to 2,500 clients in 28 countries. Last year he sold some 15 million Christmas balls.
Festive decorations would typically appear on the shelves of some stores by the end of this month, but only about half of Mr. Müller-Blech’s annual cargo is on its way to customers.
“Everything has changed,” Müller-Blech said of the impact of the pandemic. “You go to work in the morning, you turn on your computer, then OK, fantastic, there was another delay.”
This year, Müller-Blech does not think his business will be profitable.
Roger Lund, the owner of the Christmas Haus store, generally needs all of his party products to arrive by June so that he has time to store, catalog and prepare the decorations and toys for sale online or in stores before. the rush of buyers that begins in early October.
“The shipping industry has a problem, everything is slowing down and things are not working normally,” Lund said.
Its cargo of Mr Müller-Blech and others was due to arrive in Gettysburg by truck on Tuesday. But Mr Lund learned this week that his freight forwarders couldn’t find the right type of truck to haul the goods, which means another delay.
“It just goes on and on,” he laughed. “You have to laugh, because there is nothing you can do about it.”
As of Friday, 600 large container ships were waiting to dock outside ports in Asia, Europe and North America, and the delay of ships arriving at US and Canadian ports from the Far East has gone from 2 p.m. in June 2020 to almost 10 days in August, according to eeSea, which provides data on the container market.
With companies moving to put their goods on planes instead of ships, global air freight rates this month are more than double their 2019 levels, before the pandemic, according to Clive Data Services, which provides data on industry prices.
Covid-19 has also resulted in a severe shortage of truck drivers in the western world, also increasing the cost of transporting goods by road.
In June, the Yantian port terminal in southern China closed after at least one worker tested positive for Covid-19. For Müller-Blech, this added around three weeks to a delivery of 40 containers that had already been delayed by around five weeks.
“Things are confirmed and two hours later they change again,” he said. “As long as the containers are on a ship and as long as that ship is in port, you can only talk, talk and wait, wait.”
Because ports operate on specific schedules, delays from one terminal spill over to others when a container ship misses its time slot to dock. After the ship carrying Mr Müller-Blech’s order left Yantian late, he had to wait an extra week for a new position outside Hamburg, he said.
There is hardly any part of the transportation system that is not experiencing problems. With such severe delays at the port, Müller-Blech recently decided to ship six of his containers by train from southern China via the Trans-Siberian Express and to Germany. The route adds an additional € 500 to the cost of each container travel, but is a week faster than travel by sea. Then the German railway workers went on strike at the end of the summer, freight handlers left the containers at a Chinese station for two weeks, fearing that they would have nowhere to go when they reached their destination.
“I got the extra cost and extra wait,” he said.
Even after the shipments reach Germany, they face a second trip to European customers and another round of delays, thanks to the same shortage of truck drivers that has plagued the United States. at four days, it is now about 10 days.
Recently, Mr. Müller-Blech received good news from a German transport company, with one caveat: it had trucks; but could Mr Müller-Blech provide a driver?
“No, of course not,” he said. “It’s a very different matter from decorating.”
Mr. Müller-Blech is not the only one struggling.
Some US retailers warn some artificial Christmas trees may sell out sooner as deliveries have been affected by congestion; they are raising prices 20-25% to keep pace with skyrocketing shipping costs.
Large companies, including sportswear maker Adidas AG and UK retailer Tesco PLC, have also warned of product shortages during the holiday season.
Book publishers, whose fourth quarter can account for up to 40% of annual sales, face the prospect of potential bestsellers stranded in warehouses. Some publishers have postponed the release of headlines until after the holidays, according to Ingram Content Group, a Tennessee-based book industry services company.
Mr. Müller-Blech says his life has become one of late nights and constant email checking. Like Santa Claus, Klaus Muller doesn’t stop working for Christmas until the same day. He says he doesn’t remember looking forward to Christmas Eve as impatiently as he did this year.
“I will be very happy when it is December 24,” he said.
Mr Lund has been dealing with Mr Müller-Blech for 20 years and says he doesn’t get very upset, including these delays.
“He has a long-term perspective, his family has been doing this since 1597,” he said. “He’s got Christmas in his blood.”
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