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Forget toilet paper: This summer's suitcase shortage could leave travelers in a lurch

July 13, 2021
9 min read
2Photo Jul 01, 8 43 07 PM
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Just as store shelves are consistently stocked with toilet paper again, U.S. consumers could be facing another shortage this summer: suitcases.

With pent-up travel demand manifesting in the form of surging bookings, vacationers in the market for new luggage could find themselves up against product scarcity and high prices as they prepare to pack for their next round of adventures.

But it's not just an increase in demand that has left shelves at many major retailers nearly bare. A combination of factors has led to a breakdown in the supply chain that keeps stores stocked with suitcases.

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The luggage selection was slim at a Boscov's department store. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

How I noticed the shortage

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the market for a new carry-on, but I didn't want to spend hundreds of dollars. Because I prefer in-person shopping to online, I figured I'd check out some of my local big-box outposts. First was Target, where my choices were limited to a couple of soft-sided bags with no wheels, a bubblegum-pink monstrosity that was too large for my needs and a single gray option that cost a bit more than I wanted to spend.

Next up was T.J. Maxx, which usually has a decent selection of luggage in fun patterns. (I prefer bags that stand out because they're easier to spot and harder to confuse with anyone else's stuff.) Alas, when I walked in, the shelves were completely empty. I flagged down an employee who told me that they just can't seem to get enough suitcases to satisfy the demand.

My search then took me to Bed Bath & Beyond, which had only super pricey options; Walmart, where racks mostly devoid of luggage seemed to stretch on forever; and a second Target location, which had only four plain, overpriced choices and one lonely backpack.

A second Target location also had limited stock. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

Undeterred, I decided to take my chances at the mall. I tried every single department store there, including JCPenney, which had a few more choices than I was expecting at that point, and Macy's, which looked like it had been looted. They both had some stock -- and, oddly, a ton of sales, as though they were trying hard to get rid of what they had -- but not as much of a selection as usual. Nothing stood out, so I called it a day.

Related: What your luggage brand says about you

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I returned home, bagless and frustrated, but mostly curious about what the heck was going on. After scouring Amazon for an hour to find something in my price range that wouldn't take a month or more to arrive, I contacted a friend who works as an executive for one of the aforementioned brands. He confirmed that, for several reasons, stores across the United States are finding it difficult to keep a steady supply of suitcases in front of customers.

What's causing the shortage

Raw material shortages

Metal production decreased greatly last year, due to pandemic-related shutdowns, and it has been slow to restart. Because supply is down -- and because tariffs imposed by the previous U.S. government administration have limited less-expensive foreign competition -- the price of steel has soared in recent months, The New York Times reports.

The luggage section at Macy's looked like it had been looted. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

That has made it difficult for some manufacturers to obtain the supplies they need for things like suitcase wheels, telescoping handles and zipper pulls. (Side note: This is the same metal shortage that's limiting supplies of things like Coke, Pepsi, canned vegetables and pet food, and, of course, vehicles, leading to massive rental car deficiencies across America.)

Lack of truck drivers

American Trucking Associations, a trade organization that represents the trucking industry, says although more than 72% of U.S. freight was transported by truck in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic has left the industry even more short-staffed than it has been in past years.

"As one of the nation's largest employers, the trucking industry faces myriad issues associated with recruiting, hiring, training, and retaining its workforce -- not the least of which is a shortage of qualified drivers that reached a new record high of 60,800 by the end of 2018," the ATA's website says.

JCPenney had some stock, but it was also running sales, which had left many shelves empty. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

Fewer drivers mean fewer goods -- including bags -- are being delivered, and fewer bags mean higher prices. So, even if travelers can find a few pieces of luggage floating around at various stores, they're likely to be the expensive brands that retailers don't typically move as quickly.

Related: 9 great suitcases worth the checked-bag fee

Skyrocketing travel demand

As noted, travel is spiking following a year of lockdowns for many people. In fact, the U.S. Travel Association noted in its June report that 47 million Americans were predicted to travel over the July Fourth weekend -- the second-highest Independence Day travel volume on record, only slightly down from that of 2019.

Related: Business travel surging back

As would-be wanderers and jet-setters prepare to hit the road, the luggage shortage is exacerbated by the fact that demand is way, way up. That's causing the few shipments stores do receive to disappear almost as quickly as they arrive.

Shelves that usually hold a local T.J. Maxx's suitcase stock were bare. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

What luggage companies are saying

"The post-pandemic motivation to buy is two-fold: clients who have an immediate need for luggage as they begin to travel again or a desire to purchase something symbolic of brighter days ahead,” Dezaray Romanelli, general manager of Rimowa North America, told me. “Like many industries, we have been challenged by the strain on the global supply chain throughout the pandemic. However ... owning our own factories has given us the agility to adapt in this very fluid climate.”

"As travel restrictions ease and vaccinations enable more people to travel safely, consumer demand for Away products has grown week over week," said Candan Erenguc, chief supply chain officer and SVP of operations for Away. "And as this demand continues to climb, the luggage industry, like many others, is feeling the effects of global supply chain disruptions. Port congestion, freight costs, labor shortages and commodity price volatility all impact our supply and inventory levels.

Related: Away’s smallest suitcase ever could be perfect for business travelers

"To mitigate disruptions, Away implemented production and inventory strategies that include positioning raw materials and components, leveling production and transportation schedules, and holding higher inventory levels of customer favorites. To date, we've seen success in this strategy, largely avoiding longer-term inventory shortages."

I also didn't have any luck at Walmart, which dedicates a ton of real estate to luggage. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

Samsonite, which also owns eBags, American Tourister and Tumi, declined to comment for this story.

What retailers are saying

I contacted the PR departments for each of the retailers mentioned in this article, and although a couple replied and confirmed the shortage and its causes, none would go on the record with specifics.

Bottom line

If you're shopping for luggage this summer, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Buy direct. If you have something specific in mind in terms of bag size, look or brand, you'll have the best luck checking all the boxes if you go straight to the source and order directly from a luggage retailer.

Plan ahead. Don't expect to go to the store the day before your big trip and find exactly what you're looking for. Similarly, if you're going the online ordering route, there could be delays. The bag I ordered from Amazon took two weeks to ship (and that was one of the earlier fulfillment dates I was able to find).

Although Macy's had some availability, its luggage section largely looked like it had been ransacked. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

Prepare for sticker shock. If you're on a budget, you're likely to have a harder time finding a suitcase that falls within your price range, as the brands available at most department stores right now tend to be the pricier ones. (To offset the cost and maximize the return on your investment, charge your new bags to a card that offers 2%/2x points, use your Chase Ink Business Cash Credit Card to buy a gift card at Staples to use for the transaction (on up to $25,000 in combined category purchases each account anniversary year), or earn a 5% cash-back quarterly bonus, on up to $1,500 in combined purchases after activation, with the Chase Freedom Flex by purchasing luggage on Amazon.)

Be thrifty. If all else fails, check with a friend or family member to see if you can borrow a set of suitcases for your upcoming trip, try your luck at a local thrift store (as recommended by several readers in the TPG Lounge on Facebook), or try to make the old luggage you were planning on replacing last just a little while longer.

Featured image by Shelves were bare at one of two Target locations near Allentown, PA. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/Getty Images)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.