June 14, 2012 | Volume 42, No.24

Freight delay strands groceries

Retailers in Haines say inconsistencies in freight delivery are costing them money and time.

An official with shipper Alaska Marine Lines said the scheduling change that has caused the delays has become more frequent in recent years. It may improve a little this year due to an anticipated 20 percent drop in fish volumes that ties up barge traffic in Petersburg, said Don Reid, vice-president of operations for AML in Juneau.

“In the last five years, it’s gone from maybe two times per summer, to now pretty frequently,” Reid said.

For years, Alaska Marine Lines delivered freight on a schedule that brought groceries, lumber and other essentials into town on Tuesday mornings. Store owners say they were recently notified they shouldn’t expect that regularly.

This week, the AML barge wasn’t scheduled to arrive until 8:30 p.m. Tuesday. Grocery store co-owner Doug Olerud said that means his lettuce and other produce will be another day older.

“You can stock for an extra week with dry goods but perishable stuff is only good for a certain amount of time, then you lose it. If you order extra, you end up throwing a lot of it away,” Olerud said.

In addition, not all items in sales advertised to start Wednesday will be on the shelves in time. The delays could cost his store thousands of dollars over the course of a year, Olerud said.

Customers are noticing the delays, he said. “Some of them are starting to call up and ask, ‘Do you have freight?’ before they shop,” he said. Freight is a chronic issue in Southeast Alaska. Not knowing when it’s coming further complicates it, Olerud said.

Grocer Mike Ward said delays are especially tough on businesses on weeks like this one, when stores are gearing up for the busy bike relay weekend. “We’re trying to deal with an event coming up and we lose an entire day dealing with stock. It’s a disruption for our business, and a disruption for our customers.”

Shelving stock that arrives late Tuesday also conflicts with busy cruise ship days in Haines on Wednesdays, Ward said.

AML’s Reid said it’s still the company’s goal to get the barge into Haines Tuesday morning. The problem is the cruise ships in Skagway effectively block the barge from docking in Skagway, setting back AML’s schedule by 12 hours.

“In the past few years, as freight volumes have increased in location south of Haines and Skagway, we have experienced more instances where the stop in Haines prevents us from getting to Skagway prior to the cruise ship arrival,” Reid said in an e-mail this week.

Also, because of increased freight volume to and from Skagway from Yukon mining expansion, AML needs seven to eight hours of loading and offloading time there, compared to two hours in Haines. The company unloads and loads in Skagway during cruise ship dockings, when tight parking at the dock also prevents the AML barge from departing before cruise ships leave.

Lumberyard owner Chip Lende said delays in building supplies equates to slowed construction projects here during summer months. “In the summer, we’ve got people screaming for stuff that’s supposed to be here Tuesday and maybe doesn’t show up until Thursday,” Lende said. “The whole town is inconvenienced during the construction season.”

Weather sometimes delays freight during the winter, but business that time of year is generally slow enough to buffer the lost time, he said.

Like other businesses, Lende said he schedules crews for unloading freight, then has to shuffle when it doesn’t come in. “It’s a real inconvenience not to mention lost sales when we’re idle Monday and Tuesday.”

A schedule that changes weekly is worse than a changed one for lumberyard owner Lende. “If it was on a dependable schedule, we’d arrange our schedules accordingly, but we don’t know… We’re the stepchild.”

AML’s Reid said a permanent change to a later delivery date would likely be opposed by grocers.