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Supply chain problems leave bookstores in limbo as Christmas approaches

HALLE, BELGIUM: Illustration picture shows a student working at a bookstore in Halle. (BELGA PHOTO SISKA GREMMELPREZ)
06:07 07/12/2021

Bookshops are experiencing increasing delays on their deliveries as the Christmas period rapidly approaches, leaving many to wonder whether their festive orders will arrive in time or if planned presents will even be available.

The delays are due in particular to the problems of pulp supply in printing works and multiple difficulties in the distribution chain.

"First of all, there are the problems related to pulp," said Benoît Dubois, director of Adeb, the Association of Belgian Publishers. "For printers, paper delivery times have almost doubled. We went from six weeks to more than 12 weeks. In some cases, we have delays of six months."

Other factors behind the delay include the increase in the price of raw materials and the packaging of the product. The books are transported in cardboard boxes, a material also derived from paper pulp. "The use of these cardboard boxes has exploded since the pandemic and the boom in e-commerce with home deliveries," said Diane Platteeuw, co-owner of an independent bookstore in Wavre.

Distribution problems have also contributed to the delays, with deliveries stuck at ports or in distribution centres. "The entire transport sector is suffering from the health crisis and the delivery network for books is no exception," said Dubois. As in most sectors, distribution is also slowed down by the quarantine of some workers.

The problem is increasing as Christmas approaches, with more and more orders coming in for books as gifts. "The demands are higher in December and many books do not arrive," said Platteeuw. "For St Nicholas's Day, for example, customers were disappointed not to have received their books, even though they had ordered them three or four weeks in advance."

And for Christmas, the observation is the same. "We see today that we will not have many of the books ordered for the holidays. Maybe they won't even be reprinted. There are severe supply problems for some titles."

Platteeuw’s independent bookstore, which she runs with co-manager Marie-Pierre Jadin, does its utmost to try to satisfy its customers. "For example, we contact colleagues to try to find a book that we would no longer have, in order to help customers. But it is not always easy to make people understand the current situation. In any case, we can give advice for orders or offer other books."

As with some novels, comics and manga are also highly sought after. "The success of comics, hardcover children's books and manga continues to grow,” said ubois. “The increase is 300% compared to 2019 for manga."

The Adeb predicts that the problems behind the delays will gradually be resolved – but not in time for Christmas. "It won't be for the next few months,” said Benoît Dubois. “We will probably have to wait until mid-2022 before things return to normal."

Written by Nick Amies