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.
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."
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."