The challenges this year will be as long a family’s shopping list:
- The traditional holiday peak converges with elevated online demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic. E-commerce sales will match or surpass brick-and-mortar. Consumers have multiple ordering channels to tap. E-commerce supply chain fulfillment and delivery operations need to respond to this decentralized − and unprecedented − demand-pull.
- Many supply chains remain out of kilter, one of the pandemic’s many legacies. U.S. inventories are at their lowest levels in five years, according to several analysts. Stock-outs have been common throughout most of 2020. U.S. imports are spiking. However, those goods may not reach store shelves or distribution centers in time to satisfy peak consumption needs.
- Parcel networks have been overwhelmed by demand since March. This has led to inconsistent delivery performance across the board. National and regional parcel carriers have maxed out their fulfillment and distribution infrastructures. Late deliveries mean that consumers will be forced to accept holiday service levels that are beneath their expectations. If there is good news, it’s that e-commerce consumers are aware of the problems and will be more tolerant of slower delivery. What they demand, and should expect, is access to real-time information about any service issues.
- Consumers may order goods earlier than usual, allowing the supply chain to spread out delivery timetables to create a “load-leveling” effect. That would be positive news, but it should not automatically be counted upon. Amazon’s shift of its “Prime Day” program from July to mid-October could pull forward a fair amount of holiday activity.
- Warehouse space is severely constrained. Amazon said several months ago it will need 50 percent more space to keep up with its projected holiday demand. Retailers with brick-and-mortar exposure need to position stores as “forward fulfillment” nodes. This allows orders to be pulled from store inventory and delivered over relatively short distances. Store networks will also support what is expected to be major demand spikes for in-store and curbside pickups of online orders. Pure-play e-tailers without store networks will need to get creative.
- FedEx and UPS are levying meaningful peak surcharges on volumes from their largest customers. The U.S. Postal Service imposed the first peak surcharge in its history. Carriers say the fees are needed to offset their higher costs to serve. That is true, up to a point. Demands on delivery networks will be unprecedented, and carriers are pricing their services accordingly. Companies will have to consider this in their free shipping strategies to maintain profitability.
THE CLOCK IS TICKING
Is it too late for shippers and retailers to get their holiday house in order?
Not necessarily, but it will take fast action and deep planning. The challenges, as we’ve laid out, are immense. One key is to get ahead of the “demand curve.” When shippers gain visibility into end demand, they can prepare and execute a plan that enhances customer satisfaction and does so profitably. After all, meeting customer demands while losing money in the process is the hollowest of victories.
Managing the upstream channel is just as critical. Calibrating inventory flows with replenishment needs is a year-round challenge, and especially so during peak. The challenge is magnified this year with the headwind of COVID-19. Retailers need a clear line of sight into supplier production so they can forecast their inventory replenishment. In normal times, lack of visibility can lead to costly over-ordering to ensure adequate buffer stock. This season, however, over-ordering may be an adequate response, given how and where the inventory is positioned.
During CSCMP’s EDGE 2020 Virtual Conference, Target Executive Vice President and Chief Supply Chain and Logistics Officer Arthur Valdez advised to “not be afraid to overreact.” That may sound counter-intuitive, but it can be an appropriate step during this peak. Target will be investing heavily in transportation services with a focus on improving delivery timing, Valdez said. Again, that appears to run against the grain as transport is considered a cost center. Yet it will be less costly than failing to execute deliveries because capacity is not available. A seasoned logistics partner can map out a strategy to leverage a customer’s existing assets, as well as to bring in outside capabilities that profitably meets customer demands.
This is especially important as shippers encounter an increasingly complex surcharge environment constructed by FedEx, UPS and, to a smaller degree, USPS and regional carriers. High-volume FedEx and UPS customers could be looking at surcharges as high as $4 to $5 per piece. These are by far the most expensive surcharges we have ever seen. They can spell the difference between peak season success and failure, even if everything else breaks right. Any shipper expecting to tender significant traffic to either or both must be able to navigate those surcharges all within the framework of their logistics execution.
Amid the coming storm, it may be hard for folks to get a good fix on demand profiles beyond the holidays. But it pays to do so. For example, we may see another e-commerce surge early next year as fears of a combined COVID-seasonal flu cycle keep more consumers homebound. Already, we are seeing 2021 budget plans being adjusted to account for the lingering effect of COVID-19. We also expect similar peak season patterns for the next 3-5 years even after a coronavirus vaccine is approved and distributed. A strong logistics partner not only can help you get through 2020. It can prepare you for 2021, 2022, and beyond.