Biden hosts CEOs to discuss holiday shopping supply chain issues, inflation

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US President Joe Biden takes part in a roundtable with CEOs and leaders of major retailers, consumer products firms, and grocers to discuss the holiday shopping season in the EOP Library of the White House in Washington, DC on November 29, 2021.

Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden hosted the CEOs of several major retailers at the White House on Monday to discuss administration efforts to tackle global supply chain bottlenecks, and to reassure Americans that goods will be on shelves for the holidays.

Joining Biden in person from the tech sector were Etsy CEO Josh Silverman and Samsung CEO KS Choi. The grocery sector was represented by Food Lion president Meg Ham, Todos Supermarket CEO Carlos Castro and Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen.

Other retailers in attendance included Mattel CEO Ynon Kreiz, Best Buy CEO Corrie Barry and David Rawlinson, CEO of Qurate Retail Group, which owns brands like QVC, Ballard Designs and Zulily.

Walmart CEO Doug McMillon and CVS Health CEO Karen Lynch attended the meeting virtually.

“The business leaders gathered here today represent a broad swath of American shopping,” said Biden in his opening remarks. “I want to hear from each of you about what you’re seeing this holiday season, how well prepared are you to have products you need on your shelves, and how you’ve innovated and hired to overcome these supply chain challenges you have.”

In particular, Biden said, he hoped to hear about the challenges facing small businesses and about how the federal government could continue partnering with retailers to help them keep shelves stocked.

The first CEO to speak was Ham, who said Food Lion’s supply chain was “strong and robust, and we have ample product inside of our stores.”

She credited the company’s own supply chain and its early planning with vendors and local farmers with helping the company stock stores across 10 states with fresh food and produce.

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Next, Biden asked McMillon of Walmart if there had been any improvements in the rate of its goods flowing through ports as a result of recent actions by the administration.

The White House first created a Supply Chain Disruption Task Force in June and tapped John Porcari to be the group’s Port Envoy in August. This fall, the administration worked closely with the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to help them expand their operating hours and reduce the long line of ships waiting to unload cargo in the ports.

McMillon said Walmart had seen a 26% increase in throughput at ports nationwide in the past 4 weeks, with an even higher rate of increased flow through, 51%, at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Earlier this month, the administration rolled out a second series of steps it is taking to address cargo backlogs at major ports, including $4 billion worth of construction at coastal ports and inland waterways. This work, led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is slated to begin within 60 days.

After the roundtable, Biden was initially scheduled to deliver remarks on what his administration is doing to “strengthen the nation’s supply chains, lower everyday costs for families, and ensure that shelves are well-stocked this holiday season,” the White House said Monday morning.

But those remarks were abruptly postponed until Wednesday. A White House official said the last-minute schedule change was because Biden “wanted to ensure ample time spent with the business leaders who traveled to the White House today.”

US President Joe Biden takes part in a roundtable with CEOs and leaders of major retailers, consumer products firms, and grocers to discuss the holiday shopping season in the library of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC on November 29, 2021.

Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images

The roundtable was part of a multi-pronged White House effort to tackle the intertwined challenges of global supply chain bottlenecks and inflation.

Both of these problems trace their roots to an increase in post-pandemic demand for goods, which has collided with a global shipping system still hampered by Covid slowdowns.

And while there is little that Biden can do to directly influence these two macro-level challenges, the White House has been working overtime to make changes where it can.

Two days before Thanksgiving, Biden announced the United State would release 50 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, part of a global effort by major oil consuming nations to ease the high price of gasoline.

Increasing the supply of goods on U.S. shelves is expected to ease some of the pressure on prices. So is reducing the price of gas, which has skyrocketed this year and contributed to the high cost of retail goods.

But for many consumers, the pace of government solutions does not appear to be meeting the urgency of price inflation.

Monday’s event at the White House follows a Thanksgiving weekend during which Americans paid significantly more for turkey, potatoes and pies than they’ve paid in recent years. The U.S. consumer price index increased 6.2% last month from October 2020, with the price of food increasing 5.2% on the year.

Now, the 2021 holiday shopping season promises to feature both the inflation that impacted Thanksgiving’s food costs, plus the added supply chain concerns about goods being unavailable.