Christmas shoppers face reduced choice if port strike escalates, warn experts


hoppers may not be able to get the Christmas goods they want if disruption at the Port of Felixstowe rumbles on into next month, supply chain experts have warned.

Sharon Graham, general secretary of the Unite trade union, said that the eight-day strike which began on Sunday will escalate if workers are not given an improved pay offer.

Almost 2,000 dockers have walked out in a dispute over pay at the Suffolk port.

Simon Geale, of supply chain specialists Proxima, said the Port of Felixstowe has around 40% of the UK’s capacity and is “pretty critical”.

He said that while the eight-day strike would “snarl the system up a little bit more… it’s not going to be a fatal blow”.

But he said retailers will be monitoring the situation, as unloading for Christmas starts around September and, if the dispute continues into next month, it could case “serious disruption”.

A man carrying a Unite the Union flag surfs around the Port of Felixstowe in Suffolk where members of the Unite union are on strike at Britain’s biggest and busiest container port (Joe Giddens/ PA) / PA Wire

“The retailers in particular will be keeping an eye on this because the closer we get and the more we move into September, that’s when they start unloading for Christmas,” he said.

“So a consequence could be that while the retailers have been trying to embed some predictability and encourage shoppers to buy early, they might not have the stock levels that they’d been planning to have.

“If it does rumble on even through September, that’s when the serious disruption starts.

“What’s happening at the moment is that the ships that would go into Felixstowe, particularly the larger berth ones, will either be sat outside Felixstowe or they’ll be having to divert, perhaps to Rotterdam.

“The cargo will have to be unloaded, shipped in on smaller ships to different ports, potentially adding a further week.

“You can see how things can start to back up and stack up.”

Members of the Unite union on a picket line at one of the entrances to the Port of Felixstowe in Suffolk (Joe Giddens/ PA) / PA Wire

He said this could result in extra costs for consumers.

Mr Geale went on: “We’ve seen a lot of the retailers, particularly in terms of toys, because they got burnt last year, trying to buy in early, so there is a level of stock.

“I don’t think the shelves will be empty straight away, but it’s whether they’ll be able to replenish in time.”

He said Christmas could be “a little different this year”.

“A lot of the retailers are forecasting there’ll be significantly less demand with the cost-of-living crisis, so I think that’s one element,” he said.

“But I also think there’ll be a lot of savvy shoppers who will be trying to make sure they don’t face any pain.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham speaks to her members on a picket line (Joe Giddens/ PA) / PA Wire

“It will be interesting to see if we see a bumper, high level of consumer demand through mid to late November and early December then a tail off.”

Dr John Glen, chief economist at the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply (CIPS), said: “If we start to look at a longer dispute then we are into a situation where there could be significant disruptions in supply chains.

“It’s difficult to say which supply chains will be disrupted, but you’ve got to look at the aggregate volumes that are going through Felixstowe, probably our most important port in terms of bringing in containers.

“That’s going to significantly disrupt UK supply chains and now we’re potentially seeing shortages of goods, particularly going into Christmas.

“So you may not be able to get the Christmas goods that you wanted.”

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