Workplace

Follow that package into supply chain hell: One man's 3.5-month wait for a new keyboard

One guy, three backordered pianos, four companies, at least 21 phone calls.

A delivery person pushing a dolly full of packages and boxes

A couple of years ago, this story would have sounded pretty bananas.

Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images

Click banner image for more Shopping Week coverage

It started with three busted piano keys: a D, E flat and E. After a locked-down year of having to pluck around them while playing his 18-year-old Yamaha P-250 — and falling in love with a friend's new Yamaha YDP-184 — Jeff knew it was time to upgrade.

Between July and November, Jeff would pay for two new $2,200 digital pianos, finally cancel one of them and spend dozens of hours on the phone with four different companies. By late October, Jeff finally received one of the pianos he'd ordered almost four months before.

A couple of years ago, this story would have sounded pretty bananas — an online purchase from hell. But after a nearly two-year pandemic that has broken the way the world builds and ships electronics, Jeff's three-and-a-half-month wait is downright relatable. Welcome to supply chain hell: We all live here now.

"We just broke a record number of vessels offshore again, and some of them will be there for weeks," said William George, an analyst at Import Genius, a company that sources shipment records from customs bureaus. "It's gotten so far beyond one issue now."

Ordering — and reordering — and waiting

Jeff, a San Francisco tech entrepreneur (who asked that we not use his last name "to avoid further headaches related to the whole ordeal"), ordered the pianos in early July, when both looked to be in stock. After he put in the first order, the camera and electronics retailer Adorama notified Jeff that the piano was out of stock.

"The backorder date they gave me was way in the future," Jeff said. "There was something about the wording that made me think … 'Ugh, I can't rely on this.'"

Wanting a piano that could arrive sooner, Jeff put in a second order with the Guitar Center subsidiary Music & Arts, which gave him a July 23 estimated time of arrival.

But on July 18, Jeff made one of what would be many calls to Music & Arts (the company said it has records of him calling 21 times, though he said there were many more times when he didn't get through to a representative) to ask about his order. A customer service rep then emailed him that the piano wouldn't get to the company's warehouse until Oct. 20.

"A three-month delay update five days before my order was allegedly supposed to be delivered to the warehouse is unacceptable," Jeff wrote back. "I received an email delivery estimate of July 23 just 11 days ago, and I reached out to you guys today, not the other way around."

'I don't want anyone to ever see any record of that phone number existing. Again.'

In early August, Jeff learned that Music & Arts had sent the piano to a shipping company called ABF Freight on July 27, but that ABF had sent it back to Music & Arts two days later because it hadn't been able to reach Jeff.

Huh?

As it turned out, ABF was calling Music & Arts' phone number, somehow thinking it was Jeff's.

"They called Music & Arts' number over and over again to try and deliver it, and never got anyone and no one ever called them back," Jeff said. He then called Music & Arts to tell them what happened and that the piano was being sent back to them, but they said he'd have to start all over again, with a backordered piano. That's the third piano, but who's counting? Jeff. Jeff was counting. And, yes, he had to call ABF to make sure they deleted Music & Arts' phone number from his account.

"I was, like, 'Please delete that number from the system,'" Jeff said. "'I don't want anyone to see any record of that phone number existing again in your system."

Thanks to further backorders, the second piano wouldn't make it to ABF until mid-October.

Where's my piano?

Face-palming customer service failures aside — and we'll note here that neither ABF nor Music & Arts would return Protocol's requests for comment, but its customer service center did give us multiple wrong numbers for a PR department — the reason for the backorder was on the manufacturer's side, a customer service rep told Jeff in a followup email.

That's not surprising, according to Nathan Strang, the director of ocean trade lane management at Flexport, a freight forwarding and customs brokerage company.

Microprocessors are in short supply, and they're likely to go to products like iPhones and Teslas before digital pianos, Strang said.

"Where was that manufacturer in that pecking order, I think, would have driven that," said Strang. Packaging is also hard to come by, which can cause further delays, he noted. But even once a product is manufactured and packaged, it can get stuck for months at a backlogged port.

'None of it's real. It's not actually tracking anything.'

Customs records sourced by ImportGenius show that Music & Arts imported a shipment of digital pianos from Shanghai to the Los Angeles port on Oct. 4. Earlier shipments of musical instruments for Music & Arts customers came into Long Beach on June 20 and Aug. 5, and to LA on June 4 and July 1.

The two ports have been inundated with shipping crates for months.

"As they've filled up, there's been a cascading inability to move things," said George. "Even once you unload the containers, it can take, similarly, weeks to get them processed."

In the meantime, Jeff — eager for a new piano and not wanting to keep waiting for a delivery that would never come — kept calling Music & Arts to check on his order. On Aug. 28, the company told him the piano would be back in stock on Sept. 24, warning that that date was "set by the vendor and is subject to change at any time."

Especially at a time like this, tracking overseas shipments is complicated, Strang said. For one thing, companies might choose to simultaneously import some products by air and some by ocean, which is cheaper but takes longer. If they're nervous that customers will start canceling orders, they might send some by air.

But that can make it hard to know when a specific customer's order will arrive.

For this reason, many companies' tracking systems — especially at smaller companies — are essentially timers, Strang said.

"None of it's real. It's not actually tracking anything. It's just counting down a clock," Strang said, noting that UPS and FedEx are some notable exceptions.

So when you call customer service about your package, it can be hard for a representative to answer.

"Because there's no good assigned to the shipment yet because it hasn't reached fulfillment, they don't even know how to answer that question," Strang said. "You want to know where it is. The problem is, 'it' isn't yet defined."

Customer success!

Jeff finally got his piano on Oct. 20. But the broader supply chain issue is unlikely to even out for two or three years, Strang said. Anytime there's a big surge in demand, like around holidays, the "whiplash effect" will return.

"All of the things are still in place that caused this," Strang said. "There's just not enough time in a year to fix that."

Fintech

Gavin Newsom shows crypto some California love

“A more flexible approach is needed,” Gov. Newsom said in rejecting a bill that would require crypto companies to get a state license.

Strong bipartisan support wasn’t enough to convince Newsom that requiring crypto companies to register with the state’s Department of Financial Protection and Innovation is the smart path for California.

Photo: Jerod Harris/Getty Images for Vox Media

The Digital Financial Assets Law seemed like a legislative slam dunk in California for critics of the crypto industry.

But strong bipartisan support — it passed 71-0 in the state assembly and 31-6 in the Senate — wasn’t enough to convince Gov. Gavin Newsom that requiring crypto companies to register with the state’s Department of Financial Protection and Innovation is the smart path for California.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Sponsored Content

Great products are built on strong patents

Experts say robust intellectual property protection is essential to ensure the long-term R&D required to innovate and maintain America's technology leadership.

Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Workplace

Slack’s rallying cry at Dreamforce: No more meetings

It’s not all cartoon bears and therapy pigs — work conferences are a good place to talk about the future of work.

“We want people to be able to work in whatever way works for them with flexible schedules, in meetings and out of meetings,” Slack chief product officer Tamar Yehoshua told Protocol at Dreamforce 2022.

Photo: Marlena Sloss/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Dreamforce is primarily Salesforce’s show. But Slack wasn’t to be left out, especially as the primary connector between Salesforce and the mainstream working world.

The average knowledge worker spends more time using a communication tool like Slack than a CRM like Salesforce, positioning it as the best Salesforce product to concern itself with the future of work. In between meeting a therapy pig and meditating by the Dreamforce waterfall, Protocol sat down with several Slack execs and conference-goers to chat about the shifting future.

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

LA is a growing tech hub. But not everyone may fit.

LA has a housing crisis similar to Silicon Valley’s. And single-family-zoning laws are mostly to blame.

As the number of tech companies in the region grows, so does the number of tech workers, whose high salaries put them at an advantage in both LA's renting and buying markets.

Photo: Nat Rubio-Licht/Protocol

LA’s tech scene is on the rise. The number of unicorn companies in Los Angeles is growing, and the city has become the third-largest startup ecosystem nationally behind the Bay Area and New York with more than 4,000 VC-backed startups in industries ranging from aerospace to creators. As the number of tech companies in the region grows, so does the number of tech workers. The city is quickly becoming more and more like Silicon Valley — a new startup and a dozen tech workers on every corner and companies like Google, Netflix, and Twitter setting up offices there.

But with growth comes growing pains. Los Angeles, especially the burgeoning Silicon Beach area — which includes Santa Monica, Venice, and Marina del Rey — shares something in common with its namesake Silicon Valley: a severe lack of housing.

Keep Reading Show less
Nat Rubio-Licht

Nat Rubio-Licht is a Los Angeles-based news writer at Protocol. They graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in newspaper and online journalism in May 2020. Prior to joining the team, they worked at the Los Angeles Business Journal as a technology and aerospace reporter.

Policy

SFPD can now surveil a private camera network funded by Ripple chair

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a policy that the ACLU and EFF argue will further criminalize marginalized groups.

SFPD will be able to temporarily tap into private surveillance networks in certain circumstances.

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Ripple chairman and co-founder Chris Larsen has been funding a network of security cameras throughout San Francisco for a decade. Now, the city has given its police department the green light to monitor the feeds from those cameras — and any other private surveillance devices in the city — in real time, whether or not a crime has been committed.

This week, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors approved a controversial plan to allow SFPD to temporarily tap into private surveillance networks during life-threatening emergencies, large events, and in the course of criminal investigations, including investigations of misdemeanors. The decision came despite fervent opposition from groups, including the ACLU of Northern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which say the police department’s new authority will be misused against protesters and marginalized groups in a city that has been a bastion for both.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Latest Stories
Bulletins