Supply-chain pain leaves shoppers seeking fans and A.C. units sweating out the summer

Air conditioners and fans can be a hard-to-find commodity and restocking shelves to keep up with demand is a challenging prospect. Retailers and experts say careful planning is required by stores to keep British Columbians cool during the summer.

Retailers need to order fans and air conditioners up to 1 year in advance and tend to under-buy

Sweltering temperatures are on the way to B.C., but if you're hoping to keep cool with a fan or air conditioner and haven't bought one yet, you might have a challenge on your hands. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

Another stretch of hot weather is in the forecast for British Columbia, but some consumers will be left out in the cold.

That's because air conditioners and fans are a hard-to-find commodity and restocking shelves to keep up with demand is a challenging prospect.

"People only buy fans ... at the very, very last moment," said Jeffrey Ho, owner of Gandy's Home Hardware in Vancouver.

"People just procrastinate and think they can wait it out. It's only when it gets really, really bad that they'll come in and start buying fans.

"They expect you to have all the selection and all the fans in stock right away. It's just impossible."

Retailers and experts say careful planning is required to keep British Columbians cool during the summer, but business realities mean some will just have to sweat it out as stock runs low.

An employee of Gandy's Home Hardware in Vancouver stands next to empty shelves which would normally be stocked with fans. (Jeffrey Ho)

Buying happens early

Ho explained that when it comes to fans and air conditioning, the planning begins early.

In fact, he's getting ready to place the bulk of his fan orders for 2019 next month. That means a year in advance, he needs to guess how many units he can sell and even what the weather will be like.

It is possible to order more fans during the summer, but options are generally slim as suppliers also run low.

And even with resupplies, stock is hard to keep on the shelves, as Poco Building Supplies general manager Chris Coakley attests.

"We get an order in every week, and we're selling out every week," Coakley said, adding it takes about four days for his store to sell out.

Making matters worse, he said, is sometimes stock runs so low he is forced to the store's display fan.

"We'll lose that comfort. That happens," he said with a laugh.

Air conditioners a challenge

Ho and Coakley both run smaller stores compared to big box operations. They say that makes stocking air conditioners even trickier.

Many retailers order very few units. If they order too many, it could take up valuable shelf space and prevent them from selling other items.

Staying cool can be a challenge when retailers run out of fans and air conditioners. (Ben Bryant/Shutterstock)

"They're a lot of work for people. They have to vent them outside, they have to do a little carpentry to make the vent fit properly," Coakley said. "People … are generally looking for comfort, not another project to do."

Ho agreed. "They're very expensive and we traditionally do not sell very many."

Even big box stores like Home Depot and Best Buy had few offerings on their online stores available in the Vancouver area Tuesday afternoon.

Retailers tend to buy too few

Carleton University associate professor of management Ian Lee says retailers of all sizes tend to be very conservative when ordering expensive seasonal products like air conditioners because they don't want to be stuck with excess stock that then has to be discounted.

He says air conditioners have a very complex supply chain because manufacturers rely on hundreds of contractors to make a single unit. The contracts need to be inked before the products are sold — perhaps a year in advance — and that means manufacturers are essentially speculating on next year's sales.

"What they're trying to do, of course, is find the sweet spot," Lee said. "But it's difficult because human behaviour is sometimes fickle ... and the weather is unpredictable."

Lee says his advice for consumers sweating away and unable to find an air conditioner probably won't be helpful: buy ahead of time.

But since that isn't possible right now, he suggests finding what economists call a "substitute." That could be a fan, or taking the approach of his sister.

"She's taking a holiday in Iceland."