Walmart’s Pandemic Port Squeeze | Civil Eats

Walmart’s Pandemic Port Squeeze

While most retailers dealt with congested ports and unprecedented shipping prices, Walmart chartered its own ships, increased sales, and used its market gains to sideline competitors. Then it weighed in on shipping reform. 

walanthropy shipping containers and money representing the walton family and walmart using their resources to shift global shipping to their business benefit

In October 2021, the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports were slammed. Lines of ships waiting to unload cargo stretched 80 ships long and some container ships waited weeks before unloading their loot. The bottleneck stemmed from supply chain disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, extreme weather, and labor shortages. About a half a billion dollars in food imports floated aboard.

With holiday feasts and Black Friday sales around the corner, Walmart’s leadership knew it needed to address supply chain upheaval, according to company statements to shareholders. There were three options: one was to simply pay a premium to skip the queue.

“There was some of that that went on with L.A. and Long Beach,” said Captain Kip Louttit, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California, who helped direct traffic at the ports at the time.

Walanthropy: Walmart and the Waltons Wield Unprecedented Influence Over Food, Policy, and the Planet.

Read all the stories in our series:

  • Overview: The Long Reach of the Walmart-Walton Empire
    In this ongoing investigative series, we take a detailed look at Walmart and its founding family’s influence over the American food system, over the producers and policymakers who shape it, and how its would-be critics are also its bedfellows.
  • Walmart’s ‘Regenerative Foodscape’ Walmart’s efforts to redefine itself as a regenerative company are at odds with its low-cost model, and combined with the Walton family’s vast investments in regenerative agriculture, have the potential to remake the marketplace.
  • Walmart and EDF Forged an Unlikely Partnership. 17 Years Later, What’s Changed? We talk with Elizabeth Sturcken for an up-close look at the sustainability alliance between the environmental nonprofit and the retail behemoth.
  • Op-ed: Walmart’s Outsized Catch: Walmart and the Walton Family Foundation have relied on a debatable definition of “sustainable” seafood that allows it to achieve its sourcing goals without fundamentally changing its business model.
  • Diving—and Dying—for Red Gold: The Human Cost of Honduran Lobster: The Walton Family Foundation invested in a Honduran lobster fishery, targeting its sustainability and touting its success. Ten years later, thousands of workers have been injured or killed.
  • Walmart’s Pandemic Port Squeeze: While most retailers dealt with congested ports and unprecedented shipping prices, Walmart chartered its own ships, increased sales, and used its market gains to sideline competitors. Then it weighed in on shipping reform.
  • Walmart Heirs Bet Big on Journalism: A wash of Walton family funding to news media is creating echo chambers in environmental journalism, and beyond. Are editorial firewalls up to the task?

According to Louttit, some retailers chose to go to a different, smaller port to unload, often at a higher cost. Walmart could have also chosen to do the same.

Or, for a hefty sum, it could bypass the system entirely and hire its own ships. And that’s exactly what Walmart did.

“Our merchants continue to take steps to mitigate challenges, including adding extra lead time to orders and chartering vessels specifically for Walmart goods,” Walmart’s then-CFO Brett Biggs later said during a 2022 earnings call. In the interim, Walmart had pushed more than $1 billion in additional capital toward supply chain costs, investments in ecommerce, and other tech and customer-facing initiatives.

During the initial food shocks of COVID, when food was wasting in fields and some people experienced increased food insecurity, Walmart had another plan. Rather than transporting food, clothing, electronics, and toys via containers on massive ships servicing multiple retailers, Walmart chartered its own ships to carry goods for only its stores. The decision to pay for private vessels combined with the COVID aftermath to increase sales, allowed Walmart to increase all inventory by more than 20 percent, ultimately muscling other, smaller retailers aside and sidestepping the choked container terminals altogether.

“Nobody was overtly trying to throw a cog in the wheel,” said Louttit. “They just might be trying to maximize profitability for their piece of the system.”

And maximize Walmart did. While independent retailers and mom-and-pop shops faced shortages and even empty shelves during the 2021 holiday season, Walmart’s sales grew more than 8 percent. And, despite its logistical challenges, the pandemic overall had already proved to be a boon for the retail giant. Long one of the biggest retail businesses in the world, with $572.8 billion in annual revenue, Walmart’s gross profits jumped 7.33 percent by the end of 2021, hitting $138 billion.

While independent retailers and mom-and-pop shops faced shortages and even empty shelves during the 2021 holiday season, Walmart’s sales grew more than 8 percent.

Walmart did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

That the company thrived in the face of the pandemic and the ensuing supply chain disruption, however, illustrates its enormous influence over world trade and global pricing for goods, and how that influence is squeezing other retailers, which further weakens the global supply chain, including for food.

Walmart’s strategy at the ports also showcases how the company supports a network of lobbyists that work to expand its interests. Experts say the combination leaves supply chains too rigid to respond to disruption and makes prices, particularly for food, vulnerable to inflation.

The ‘Elephant in the Room’

The pandemic-induced long lines at port terminals also caused U.S. importers to face sky-high shipping prices. Port bottlenecks led to a shortage of containers, and in turn, the cost of shipping roughly tripled in the first year of the pandemic.

“The pandemic and ‘containergeddon’ was putting these small and medium-sized mom and pops out of business,” said Steve Ferreira, CEO of shipping consultancy Ocean Audit, referring to a term he coined to describe the ocean shipping slowdowns during the pandemic.

Exporters also struggled. American dairy producers, for example, faced unprecedented challenges in exporting goods during the pandemic’s first year. In 2021, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) was tasked with assessing the supply chain crisis by surveying industries most impacted. As part of that survey, the National Milk Producers Federation and the U.S. Dairy Export Council submitted public comments to the DOT, saying the increased cost of shipping was “significant and damaging” to dairy producers “and the thousands of workers they support throughout the supply chain.”

“There has been a change in behavior by the ocean carriers that is severely harming shippers, including American dairy exporters,” the public comment read.

On January 31, 2021, a record 38 ships were anchored close to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

On January 31, 2021, a record 38 ships were anchored close to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Even a year later, in 2022, massive disruption remained for many U.S. producers, including the seafood industry—which includes many small businesses.

“Although the story has been driven off the front page, and the nation’s attention has turned to other challenges, supply chain disruptions at U.S. ports continue to cause severe problems, imposing significant and unnecessary costs on American seafood businesses still trying to recover from the pandemic, lockdowns, food inflation, and other obstacles,” reads a public comment submitted in December 2022 by the National Fisheries Institute in a subsequent Congressional push for reform.

Ultimately, the high cost of shipping also trickled down to American consumers via record-high inflation. According to the International Monetary Fund, the increase in global shipping costs in 2021 caused inflation to increase by more than 2 percentage points.

But Walmart not only bucked those high shipping costs, it turned them into an opportunity.

“Because of Walmart’s sheer size and the fact that they’re the 800-pound elephant in the room, they were prospering during the pandemic,” Ferreira said.

“Flexing that market power over the supply chain is a way to elbow out the competition. They’re able to demand special treatment from suppliers.”

Walmart is the largest importer in the U.S., having imported nearly 1 million 20-foot shipping containers full of goods just last year. Amazon, by comparison, brought in about 3 percent of that, or roughly 33,000 containers. And yet, Ferreira estimates that during the pandemic, Walmart paid less than half what the average importer paid for shipping.

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“It all has to do with the leverage that they have in terms of the amount of spend and containers that they have,” he said.

In other words, ocean shippers couldn’t say no to their biggest client.

“Flexing that market power over the supply chain is a way to elbow out the competition,” said Stacy Mitchell, co-executive director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), who has studied Walmart extensively. “They’re able to demand special treatment from suppliers who are looking at Walmart thinking, ‘Well, you’re a quarter of my revenue. I cannot say no due to the threat of losing you as a customer, which would capsize my company. So, therefore, I have to give you the special deal. And the way I’m going to make up for that is I’m going to raise prices on your smaller competitors.’”

Walmart did not respond to a request for comment about whether the company commanded special treatment from suppliers, or whether consumers inherited the cost of its dealmaking. But the advantage larger companies had in the pandemic marketplace was part of the reason COVID took such a drastic toll on small businesses across the U.S., according to one study by a consortium of economy and business experts. Not only were larger retailers commandeering their own ships and supplies, but they were also leveraging the marketplace in their favor.

Port Reform

In the aftermath of the port frenzy, U.S. lawmakers got to work on legislation to prevent future backups and astronomical shipping costs. The Ocean Shipping Reform Act of 2022 (OSRA), which President Biden signed into law in June of that year, is designed to level the playing field for U.S. exporters and importers by ramping up oversight of the trade system.

More specifically, the bipartisan bill, introduced by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) and John Thune (R-South Dakota), aims to crack down on ocean carriers and shipping companies taking advantage of a largely unregulated international shipping system.

The act prohibits retaliation by ocean carriers, requires increased public disclosure by the Federal Maritime Commission—which oversees the shipping industry—and protects U.S. importers and exporters from being denied cargo space when it’s available.

The goal is to “ensure an efficient, competitive, and economical transportation system in the ocean commerce of the United States,” the legislation reads.

In his 2022 State of the Union address, Biden touched on the need for such legislation, saying, “When corporations don’t have to compete, their profits go up, your prices go up, and small businesses and family farmers and ranchers go under. We see it happening with ocean carriers moving goods in and out of America.”

He later applauded members of Congress for supporting legislation that “will help lower costs for American retailers, farmers, and consumers” when the Ocean Shipping Reform Act passed later in the year.

Lobbying disclosure reports reviewed by Civil Eats show Walmart was active in lobbying on the Ocean Shipping Reform Act of 2022, as well as other iterations of the legislation. Between 2022 and 2023, Walmart spent nearly $9.7 million lobbying the federal government on ocean reform and other efforts.

The company annually spends such sums to advance and protect its interests. In the last 10 years, Walmart has deployed lobbyists to affect agriculture policy, labor law, market competition, food safety, trade, climate solutions, and other legislation that affects the company’s bottom line, supply chain, and other interests in the federal arena.

“What Walmart is trying to do is say, ‘Hey, let’s let the free-market play this out.’ And it’s great for them, right? They really want that because they are the market. The less bureaucracy and rules in the way makes them a better player.”

Since 2013, Walmart has spent more than $70 million lobbying. It’s one of the top lobbying retailers in the U.S.

The company is similarly active in state politics. For example, Walmart was involved in a court battle in California over a ban on big-box stores. And the company regularly spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbyists in its home state of Arkansas.

Walmart did not respond to a request for comment on the legislation or the company’s lobbying goals. Therefore, it’s not clear exactly how Walmart lobbied on the legislation. But Ferreira said it’s not surprising that Walmart was active on the issue on Capitol Hill.

“What Walmart is trying to do is say, ‘Hey, let’s let the free-market play this out.’ And it’s great for them, right? They really want that because they are the market,” he said. “The less bureaucracy and rules in the way makes them a better player.”

And not every organization was interested in reform. The shipping industry, for example, lobbied hard against the legislation. The World Shipping Council, which represents the world’s largest shipping companies, spent at least $300,000 and hired a lobbyist known for strong ties in the Senate in order to prevent the legislation from being introduced at all. The Council called an early iteration of the Ocean Shipping Reform Act “unworkable, unnecessary, and duplicative.” It declined to answer specific questions from Civil Eats about opposition to the legislation.

Ultimately those lobbying efforts helped keep things mostly unchanged for large shippers and retailers like Walmart. Despite the legislation being signed into law last year, Ferreira said the legislation contains so many exceptions for the ocean shipping industry that it’s ineffective in moving the culture of an ocean shipping system he likened to a “cartel.”

“It really hasn’t had much of an impact or effect, if any,” he said. “It’s a very broken industry and system, and OSRA did nothing to help it. The bottom line is it doesn’t really have any teeth.”

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And with the pandemic and supply chain disruptions largely behind us, combined with the fact that container shipping rates are so low right now, it’s unlikely the issue will garner attention again until the next shipping crisis.

Consequences of Concentrated Power

The loss of many small and medium-sized retailers during the pandemic opened market opportunities for larger retailers that were able to afford to keep their shelves stocked—including Walmart.

“During the height of the supply chain bottlenecks, a lot of independent grocers did not have basic products on their shelves because Walmart had commandeered those products,” said ILSR’s Stacy Mitchell. “So, people were walking into the independent grocer and there’s no baby formula, or whatever it may be. But it’s on the shelf at Walmart, and so that drove business to Walmart.”

Walmart’s tendency to vacuum up business from smaller retailers even has a name: the Walmart Effect, a colloquialism since a book by the same name documented Walmart’s impacts on smaller retailers in the communities it serves. Through its command of the global marketplace, as well as its ability to commandeer its own ships for importing goods, the Walmart Effect deepened retail divides during the pandemic, as Walmart raked in profits and even more market share.

During the pandemic, Walmart dominated sales in almost every category—from groceries to retail goods. Its online sales increased as much as 74 percent.

Mitchell said Walmart’s size and massive market share drove food companies to further consolidate, forcing them to “bulk up,” or merge in order to hold their own against a powerful buyer. That helped craft a highly consolidated market where production has been largely driven overseas and supply lines are consolidated, tenuous, and vulnerable to collusion, Mitchell said.

And Walmart is now one of only a handful of retailers that are able to maneuver that system. That consolidation—both on the grocery and food production level—has contributed to high food prices and inflation overall.

“I would argue that Walmart is actually the primary culprit behind the set of changes in the supply chain that actually led to all of these supply chain problems and to inflation,” she said. “We are so wholly dependent on a small number of corporations who are so top heavy that they’re very brittle, they’re not terribly adaptable. They don’t have any reason to be nimble because there’s no competitor that’s going to come along and eat their lunch.”

“Is it better for Walmart to have the lowest prices and protect American savings account, or is it better to have Walmart and then a hundred mom-and-pop competitors that give the American people more choice?”

In a truly competitive market economy, retailers and supply chains should be nimble, she said. Nothing should be able to cause shortages and bottlenecks to the extent we saw the last few years—not even global pandemics, climate catastrophes, or worker shortages.

U.S. lawmakers are aware of this problem. Last year, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law held a series of antitrust hearings, one of which focused entirely on the food supply chain for goods, though not specifically on Walmart. Throughout the hearing, committee members heard from workers, farmers, low-income families, and small businesses.

“With very few companies in the lead, the long, complex supply chains that we rely on to eat daily are extremely vulnerable to disruption by health and environmental disasters—and a problem in a single location can ripple rapidly across the nation,” testified Allison Johnson, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Local and regional food supplies can be more nimble and resilient in the face of adversity, but small businesses struggle to compete in a marketplace skewed toward the largest players.”

President Biden has also been active in combating consolidation in the food sector, including by providing resources to state attorneys general to “crack down on price-gouging and other anticompetitive practices” and by preventing large corporate mergers.

Ocean Audit’s Steve Ferreira adds that, on the other hand, Walmart’s immense power grants it the ability to offer low prices to American consumers. It boils down to a matter of preference, he said.

“Is it better for Walmart to have the lowest prices and protect American savings accounts, or is it better to have Walmart and then a hundred mom-and-pop competitors that give the American people more choice?”

Suzi Parker contributed research.

Dana Cronin is an independent audio and print journalist based in Oakland, California. She has covered agriculture and environmental issues for Illinois Public Media and Harvest Public Media, a Midwest reporting collaborative focused on food and agriculture. Her work has been regularly featured on national broadcasts, including NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, PBS Newshour and Science Friday. Read more >

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  1. Colin Scott
    How do port fees work? I got the part about Wal-Mart having their own ships, but I thought the main problem was the unloading part. Or massive "queue" of container ships, was where some arrangement with the 'Cartel' as you refer to, or longshore unions?

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