Supply chain shortages are dimming Christmas displays
By Eduardo Medina
The plump penguins with winter scarves were aglow, as was virtually the entire exterior of Leonard Mosley’s house in Del City, Oklahoma. He had accumulated enough lights over 15 years of holiday decorating to spell “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Birthday Jesus” in cursive across his roof and a fence.
Santas, snowmen, candy canes — he had it all, including a first-place title in his city’s 2020 Christmas decorating contest to defend. He estimates that he has invested more than $3,000 in his setup, and yet it was not enough.
“I’m out here hunting for lights,” said Mosley, 59, as he searched the aisles of a Walmart this month for blue bulbs, taking time off from his job running a barbecue restaurant.
He left empty-handed, joining many holiday home decorators who are struggling to find supplies amid the global supply chain crisis, a lingering disruption that has not spared those who obsessively turn their homes into illuminated wonderlands each December.
This month, retail experts said, evidence of the supply chain upheaval could be seen in the picked-over decoration aisles in stores and on websites warning customers of the limited inventory for certain holiday staples. Items in short supply include inflatable Santas on motorcycles, red and green twinkling lights, and the computer chips that make neighborhood displays flicker to the beat of holiday songs.
And so Mosley and other extreme holiday decorators are struggling to enhance their light shows this season. The shortage has created a frenzy of last-minute hunting for items that are now either impossible to find or much more expensive.
Holiday decorating vendors and businesses are having just as much trouble keeping up with demand. They say the hobby has never been as popular as it is now, with the National Retail Federation estimating that the average consumer will spend $231 this year on nongift holiday purchases, including food, cards and decorations, up from $215 in 2018.
A survey from Rocket Homes estimated that 15% of people in the United States spent more than $500 on decorations in 2020. Sales of string lights were up 201% in November 2020 from November 2019, according to 1010data, which analyzes consumer habits.
“The hobby, it’s just exploding at a rate that we’ve never seen,” said Rich Bianco, vice president of Transworld Trade Shows, which puts on a yearly convention for Christmas products. “Homes are putting on shows and dropping, like, $10,000 a year on their house.”
Extreme decorators — those who invest more than $10,000 in their displays over several years — are not feeling the supply chain pinch as acutely as beginners, Bianco said. But because many extreme decorators try to outdo their neighbors — and themselves — every year, the effects of the shortage are still being widely felt.
Cynthia Branch, 46, of Knoxville, Tennessee, was still waiting on a colorful sign that says “joy.”
She placed the order in July at Christmas Expo, a three-day holiday decorating convention that drew about 1,500 attendees to Las Vegas, and was still waiting for it this week.
“We kept saying, ‘Hey, what’s going on with our delivery?’” said Branch, a veterinary technician who has been decorating her house for Christmas for seven years.
Anyone who drives by her house is not likely to notice. She has thousands of pixels — individual lights that can change color on their own, allowing for more elaborate shows.
Her display, which she begins planning in March, has an animal theme this year, with an illuminated giraffe, flamingo, lion, owl and donkey. There is also a 40-pound glowing snowflake on her roof. On the lawn, a 10-foot “mega tree” composed of pixel lights stands next to a 7-foot tree that flickers and flashes to the beat of songs like “Let It Go,” from the Disney film “Frozen,” during a 30-minute show.
“Even though it’s a lot of work, it’s worth it, just making people smile,” Branch said.
Many vendors have been struggling to help decorators achieve that aura.
Christina Gilbert, co-owner of Gilbert Engineering USA, a holiday prop design business in Florence, Arizona, said she had received dozens of angry emails, voicemail and Facebook messages from desperate customers who had been waiting longer than usual for plastic snowflakes and pixel-dotted wreaths.
“People are under the gun to get their shows up and running, right? And it is stressful,” she said. “We’re not Amazon,” she added. “We’re a family small business that is a part of the lighting community.”
Jeff Haberman, who teaches classes at decorating conventions, said “almost nobody has cables right now.” Enclosures — weatherproof boxes that protect controllers for lights — are selling on eBay for $45, triple the usual price, he said.