5 Tips: Curtailing the Supply Chain Bullwhip Effect

A phenomenon that quickly turns otherwise accurate forecasts into far-reaching supply chain inefficiencies, the bullwhip effect refers to the increasing swings in inventory — in response to shifts in customer demand — as one moves further up the supply chain

Accustomed to seeing ample supplies of diapers, toilet paper, and cleaning products on store shelves, consumers were in for a shock when COVID-19 began to take its toll on the world’s supply chains in early 2020. Although the barest of shelves began to rejuvenate by midyear, there are still some lingering effects (plus the potential for more shortages later in the year and into 2021). 

Blame the bullwhip effect for creating a lot of this chaos and uncertainty. 

“Supply chains allow companies to focus on their specific processes to maintain maximum probability,” Osmond Vitez writes in The Bullwhip Effect in Supply Chain. “Unfortunately, supply chains may stumble when market conditions change and consumer demand shifts.”

Here’s what companies should be doing now to avoid supply chain disruption in the future. 

5 Supply Chain Takeaways for 2021

Under “normal” circumstances, companies invest in extra capacity, inventory, labor and work shifts to minimize the bullwhip effect or to avoid it altogether. The problem this time around is that otherwise routine approaches didn’t work. Demand sensing, forecasting and other forward-looking predictions were equally as ineffective, and mainly due to the unprecedented nature of the global pandemic. 

Here’s the good news: shippers now have boots-on-the-ground experience with a fairly extreme case of the bullwhip effect. Using their 2020 experience as their guide, companies can now prepare for the next potential disruption with a better understanding of the hefty impacts that it could have on their global supply chains. 

Here are five lessons that all companies should apply toward their future supply chain management: 

  1. Communication, data sharing, and visibility trump all when it comes to minimizing the bullwhip effect. One large national retailer, considered to be a leader in supply chain strategy, opened the lines of communication by allowing suppliers to access their inventory data. The result: increased customer satisfaction, a decrease in inventory and warehousing costs, and more stable supply lines.
  2. Third-party logistics experts have proven their worth. Well equipped to handle the logistics, transportation and technology that go into a well-oiled supply chain, experts like Transportation Insight know both sides of the business (i.e., shipper and carrier), and we can demonstrate and articulate how each node in the supply chain will benefit from a specific decision. 
  1. Scenario planning and simulations actually work. Think of them as the “war games” of your own supply chain, use them to run simulations on historical data across different hypothetical scenarios (e.g., if we can’t get raw materials from country A, how will it impact the rest of the supply chain?). Getting the answers to these questions before a disruption occurs will help you be more prepared in the event of a disruption.
  1. Use dashboards and control towers to get big-picture views in real-time. The days when a warehouse manager had to wait until the end of the month for a printed performance report are long gone. Thanks to advancements in technology, the same manager can get that information in real-time and then use it for good decision-making. Being able to drill down into order profits, for instance, will help you better understand what you should actually be charging for shipping. This, in turn, helps support good margin management in any business conditions.
    
  2. Alternate sources of supply are a good thing to have. In surveying 150 senior manufacturing executives, law firm Foley & Lardner found that most expect to make “fairly drastic” changes to their supply chains post-pandemic, including a shift away from just-in-time manufacturing (JIT) and sourcing in China. In Global Supply Chain Disruption and Future Strategies Survey Report, the law firm says that of those companies that were operating in China pre-pandemic, 59% have either already withdrawn operations, are in the process of doing so, or are considering it. Many of those organizations are looking to reshore their operations closer to home in the U.S., Canada, or Mexico.

Depending on how you approach it, transportation can play a major role in avoiding the bullwhip effect in your supply chain. Through good communication and data-sharing across all supply chain partners, you’ll gain an understanding of both real-time and historical information as it relates to all points in the supply chain. The better decisions you can make, the better the odds of avoiding the bullwhip effect.    

Tame the Bullwhip: Manage the Demand Waves

We examine the steps you can take to build a responsive supply chain management system in our latest Supply Chain Masters Series digital event. 

Watch the webinar to learn best practices for collecting, retaining and analyzing supply chain data. We also highlight the business intelligence solutions that drive continuous improvement and proactive strategy adjustment. 

Click the link below to learn supply chain strategies that minimize risk and protect your profitability today and tomorrow.

The Bullwhip Effect: Managing Swings in Demand

The “Bullwhip Effect” is a term often used to describe a phenomenon that quickly turns otherwise accurate forecasts into outdated information, amplifying misinformation along the supply chain. The dust was brushed off this broad concept, and it returned to the shelves not long after COVID-19 began disrupting global supply chains.

“Supply chains allow companies to focus on their specific processes to maintain maximum probability,” Osmond Vitez writes in The Bullwhip Effect in Supply Chain. “Unfortunately, supply chains may stumble when market conditions change and consumer demand shifts.”

That’s exactly what happened when an abrupt change in customer demand plus factory shutdowns put companies in the tight spot of having to forecast demand in the middle of an unprecedented, worldwide pandemic.

With demand for certain items amplified, the tiniest crack of the bullwhip’s handle caused an uncontrolled, snapping motion at the tip of that whip.

Balancing Demand Effects and Available Inventory

“When major swings in inventory occur from panic buying and hoarding, the impact of this sudden demand is magnified as it moves upstream in the supply chain (similar to the way a bullwhip’s thong amplifies in a wave as it moves away from the handle),” Jenny Reese explains in “Preparing for COVID-19 and the bullwhip effect: What happens to the supply chain when you buy 100 rolls of toilet paper?” The customer feels the anxiety of empty aisles, the retailer loses sales, and customer service suffers. “Distributors are left scrambling to determine who should get how much of a given product in a shortage,” Reese continues, “and manufacturers are overwhelmed with sudden, unanticipated spikes in demand.”

With little or no visibility into demand patterns to lean on, many companies wind up flying blind and hoping for the best.

How Does the Bullwhip Effect Work?

Without accurate, accessible, and strong communication across the various partners in the supply chain, the bullwhip effect can occur in any business environment. In a supply chain made up of a factory, a distributor/wholesaler, retailer, and end customer, for example, the retailer and customer tend to be closely aligned. For instance, a customer places an order and a retailer reacts accordingly.

Continue further up that supply chain, however, and that alignment begins to diminish.

Manufacturers don’t always align their forecasts with retailers’ own projections and distributors are, frequently, caught in the middle of two entities that have zero communication with one another.

These gaps widen during events like COVID-19, with even a small variance creating a Bullwhip Effect. In fact, Jay Forrester, who first conceptualized the Bullwhip Effect in these terms, says that even a 10 percent change at either end of the supply chain can result in a 40 percent fluctuation in the middle. That’s when the wheels fall off the cart; all players in the supply chain make quick adjustments to compensate for the problem.

Why Should You Care?

Virtually every organization must address or, at least be aware of, the Bullwhip Effect. Without up-to-date and wide supply chain communication, companies risk having it adversely impact their operations and their customers. Since no organization is an island, even the most vertically-integrated companies should know the signs of the Bullwhip Effect and how to deal with it effectively.

It’s easy to recognize the Bullwhip Effect in retrospect, as customers are cancelling or returning orders that they were clamoring to buy because they bought too much, overestimating their need. In order to meet perceived demands, erratic production, excessive inventory and depletion of resources highlight this effect. During COVID 19, suppliers most at-risk from the Bullwhip Effect included makers and distributors of PPE, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and other hard-to-find items.

As a Supply chain professional you’ve been exposed to the Bullwhip Effect. The costly consequences materialize quickly and immediately erode your profitability.

Are you able to make informed decisions based on real time data?

Transportation Insight allows your business to make evidence-based decisions. We amass data about your supply chain to give you a comprehensive understanding of your logistics network. Our expertise and tools enable contingency planning through “what if scenarios” that address the Bullwhip Effect before it impacts your bottom line. Transportation Insight monitors multiple key performance indicators that measure your business activity and reveal threats and opportunities to drive continuous optimization of your supply chain.

Tame the Bullwhip: Manage the Demand Waves

We offer more context around the Bullwhip Effect in our Supply Chain Masters Digital Event. Watch the webinar today and learn how you can manage demand fluctuations with a responsive supply chain management system:

  • Best practices for collecting, retaining and analyzing supply chain data.
  • Processes that encourage scalability and readinesss for decline, recovery and even growth.

Learn the supply chain strategies that minimize risk and protect your profitability today and tomorrow.

BOPIS: Retail in Evolution

Smartphone connectivity is driving more online shopping and a BOPIS retail revolution for consumers who enjoy the convenience of buy-online-pick-up in store.

Yet, the store remains a core focus of the buying experience. That’s how it should be. The in-store customer is typically more loyal and tends to buy more than the online shopper.

A robust strategy for “Buy Online, Pick Up In Store,” or BOPIS, can offer the best of both worlds. BOPIS expands a retailer’s online exposure while preserving and deepening the in-store experience. In fact, retailers find that is common for shoppers to buy more product once they arrive at the store to retrieve their online orders. 

A well-designed BOPIS retail program also helps reduce delivery costs because the customer is going to the product, not vice-versa. Consumers prize the ease and convenience of the transaction, especially when the COVID-19 pandemic has made contactless interactions more of the rule than the exception.

Responding to a New Retail Landscape

For retailers with limited resources and insufficient time spent mastering alternate fulfillment methods, the real world suddenly became a very different place in 2020. Many have been challenged to adjust to an unfamiliar “fractured fulfillment” model where products are ordered, fulfilled, and distributed from anywhere to anywhere. It is difficult for retailers to strike the right balance of inventory levels that satisfy in-store shoppers and ensure product availability to support online channel growth.

Retailers often over-order store inventory to avoid the risk of stock-outs. This raises carrying costs, and shrinks inventory  available to allocate to online channels. 

Moving ahead with an ill-vetted BOPIS strategy can make things worse. Customers assured of a product’s in-stock status on a retailer’s website will be displeased if they take time to visit the store only to find the item isn’t available. This could damage a brand’s reputation, especially if word spreads quickly on social media.

Visibility is the pain point. Many retailers lack proper visibility into the inventory flow from their partners to effectively plan and execute an error-proof BOPIS strategy. Without visibility, retailers will continue to prioritize avoidance in-store stock-out scenarios, and will continue to absorb excess and costly inventory.

A strong 3PL provider arms retailers with superior, actionable data that improves inventory visibility without forcing them to increase levels of safety stock. The endgame is to manage appropriate safety stock thresholds for both in-store and BOPIS experiences so the customer is satisfied in either scenario. 

Personalized Solutions Require Visibility

Each retailer is unique, and each shipper-retailer partnership is unique. Working with good data, an experienced 3PL partner creates customized plans to achieve optimal results. Progress and outcomes are constantly measured and refined so fill rates achieve acceptable thresholds. Changes to the plan can be implemented quickly should circumstances change – and they often do. 

For example, a plan could require the partners to issue electronic order acknowledgements indicating changes to item quantities and arrival dates within a specified time of receiving an order. It could call for transmission of advance ship notices within two hours of a shipment’s departure so visibility is optimized. Fully leveraging distribution center connections to stores optimizes shipping flexibility to react quickly to customer behavior. 

It is still most profitable for stores when customers pick up their orders in-store, but the busy holiday season could make it difficult for consumers to get to the store. Data generated by zip codes can identify areas of strong online ordering and in-store activity. This offers retailers insight into how to best position inventory for timely and accurate distribution.

For example, a retailer wants to offer one- to two-day deliveries but its transportation providers are challenged to consistently hit those targets. It may be more feasible to ship that order out from a store versus a fulfillment center. This could require shippers to invest in a drop-shipping strategy to support an e-commerce strategy where goods are brought directly to the store level. All this strategy is grounded in visibility.

This holiday season will be like no other. In-store buying will still be prevalent. However, more consumers have adopted online ordering after being required to do so in the early days of the pandemic. BOPIS utilization will be strong this holiday, but it will continue long after peak season and even after the virus passes. Consumers want options. It is critical for retailers to comply, but to do so efficiently.

Master Your BOPIS Retail Revolution

The last-mile puzzle piece proves to be most challenging for many shippers connecting transportation and retail customer service.

The last mile is the most complex part of e-commerce fulfillment. It is also the most important. The last mile makes or breaks everything that came before it. That final delivery is the moment your customer will remember your brand most. How well do you finish?

A BOPIS strategy is just one of several last-mile offerings that shippers and retailers are expected to deliver. Done right, it reaps brand loyalty, lower costs and profitable opportunities for new market share. However, it requires a specialized level of resources and knowledge. It also requires skills and vigilance to ensure flawless execution.

We created The BOPIS Revolution: Navigating the New Never Normal to highlight some of the things you need to keep in mind when approaching – or modifying – your BOPIS strategy. Watch our SME Roundtable for a deeper dive into the ways we drive top line revenue results through personalized solutions driven by technology and expertise.

To continue the conversation, reach out to one of our supply chain experts. Let’s talk about how we can help you evolve solutions that support final delivery strategies to control cost and consistently wow your customers.

E-Commerce Logistics Demands, COVID-19 Empower Ocean Alliances

Although there is still a slim chance that the fourth quarter produces some rate compression – or a downturn in the need for e-commerce logistics. When freight levels are at an all-time high, there is little motivation for the three major shipping alliances to drop rates significantly during the remaining calendar year.

Shippers looking to 2021 would be wise to consider contingency budgeting – especially if you are a major importer competing in a supply chain environment that continues to be affected by ongoing growth in online sales and e-commerce logistics.

Likewise, there has never been a more important time to reassess your entire import supply chain to validate compliance with evolving trade regulations. Emerging pinch points in the international supply chain are elevating risk for shippers who must be prepared to address traditional risk areas that carry a financial impact.

As we have stated since early 2019, contingency planning must be the part of your monthly and sometimes weekly business plans. Diversification in foreign sourcing has never been more critical, particularly in an election season that has pushed global trade forward as individual candidates differentiating issue.  

Close review of the international transportation landscape can lay the groundwork for developing strategies that mitigate that risk heading into 2021.

Alliances Take Control Amid E-Commerce Boom

Consumer behaviors are shifting the traditional retail models, and the unchecked growth of e-commerce is keeping the global supply chain packed with product. 

Credit some of that international freight volume to the rapid production and movement of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in response to a global health crisis. At the same time, retail supply chains have been irreversibly impacted by the functional success of e-commerce. Until some of the demand cycles in both realms stabilize, predicting ocean shipping rates will be a challenge.

More importantly, the three major shipping alliances response to COVID-19 demands the attention of organizations that rely on global commerce and e-commerce logistics. Vessel operators have shown remarkable discipline by matching supply to demand volatility.

During the first half of the year, the three alliances (2M, Ocean Alliance and THE Alliance) constricted supply by canceling dozens of scheduled voyages with the intent to remove excess capacity. However the net effect was scarcity of space, i.e. rates were increased monthly or bi-weekly and started to build. Representing 21 ocean vessel operators and roughly 10 million 20-foot equivalent units (TEU), these alliances have maintained rate discipline as the retail supply chain began to open in July in August. 

In the past, increased demand for service and the prospect of rate increase motivated operators to add sailings. With a strategic approach that ensures vessels are filled before others are added, ocean carriers keep upward pressure on rates that are roughly 80 percent higher in a year-over-year comparison to 2019.

This strategy supports a more dependable service for international shippers as it creates more reliability for in-country logistics operators, but if the alliances maintain this discipline, plan for rates to stay elevated. Solid bookings will continue through October and contingency budgeting should be a focus for major importers.

Persisting Pinch Points Create Risk

As we approach what has traditionally been a calm period at the end of the e-commerce logistics peak season, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are at capacity. Historically higher volume for this time of year will undoubtedly spur downstream challenges deep into Q4 and into 2021. 

Finding available chasses to support container movements will continue to be a problem into December. As these containers and chasses (to a lesser degree) move in country and on the rail, it is hard to balance the need for equipment during a disruption-filled year like we’ve had. Vessels hoping to expedite movement for the last wave of peak season freight to North America are now waiting for containers to come back to port so that have something to load and ship. 

We know there will be an end to this kind of imbalance, but we have not gotten there yet.

The timing has never been greater for organizations to assess their entire import and export supply chain. Look for places to increase efficiency. Identify pinch points that elevate risk that emerges in times of global volatility. At this point, organizations should have complete awareness of the supply chain challenges arising during COVID-19 and address their preparedness for the next global disruption, both economically and around traditional risk areas. 

Trade Regulations and Tariff Battles Require Eye on Compliance

Plaintiffs representing a diverse set of industries are suing the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) for relief from China 301 tariffs. The argument: tariffs implemented without sufficient advanced notice caused unfair and improper financial harm to their organizations. Many shippers have been negatively impacted, some to a crippling point, and they are looking for any dollars they can get.

These organizations – including some of the world’s largest brands – will not likely get complete relief, but their actions demonstrate that businesses will not sit idle when trade laws are put in place, as they argue, without warning.

Meanwhile, implementation of the trade regulations intended to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement continues to carry some unexpected consequences.

The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) is having the largest effect on businesses close to the automotive supply chain, but many companies were lulled into thinking there would be limited changes in the new agreement. Updated documentation is required to execute cross border entries. Make sure to review your international trade compliance processes to avoid this type of needless risk caused by what seems like a simple change in regulations. 

BOPIS: What Does It Mean for Shippers?

Buy-online-pickup-in-store, or BOPIS, has turned desktop computers and mobile phones into digital shopping carts.

Linearity is on the way out. So is the shipper’s control of the supply chain. E-commerce has spawned the “omni-channel fulfillment” model where orders, distribution and deliveries occur from anywhere, anyone, and at any time. The traditional supply-push scenario with shippers calling the shots is giving way to a demand-pull approach with consumers in control of the transaction.

The “Buy Online, Pick Up In Store” (BOPIS) concept has become a key part of the asymmetrical, demand-pull world we live and work in. Who ever imagined a consumer ordering an item on an electronic device, having a retailer immediately pick and pack the product at one of multiple locations, and having it ready for the consumer’s arrival at a pre-arranged time, typically within a few hours and sometimes under an hour? 

Experience Depends on BOPIS Excellence

Customers are increasingly willing to rate your their experience following an online purchase and in-store pickup.

The COVID-19 pandemic is driving BOPIS toward mainstream adoption. Contactless interactions remain the order of the day – especially during the holiday season as health-conscious consumers continue to minimize time spent shopping in confined spaces. But BOPIS and other alternate fulfillment practices will outlast the pandemic. They will become permanent additions to the logistics landscape.

To execute an effective BOPIS strategy, shippers must understand retailers’ two overarching objectives: 

  • Ensure a seamless customer experience regardless of the order touchpoint.
  • Maintain adequate in-store inventory while expanding digital buying opportunities.

It is essential for retailers to have the right goods always available, and at the right place at the right time for the consumer. The “right time” could involve shipping to a residence or to another physical location. It could mean an in-person brick-and-mortar sale. It could mean BOPIS, or its first cousin, “Buy Online Pick Up at Curbside” (BOPAC). It could be a drop-shipping model where the shipper delivers directly to the store, thus minimizing the need to hold inventory in a space-constrained facility.

Striking the correct balance between in-store and digital inventory is just as critical. In-store customers are typically more loyal and buy more per visit than online customers. Retailers are loath to broaden their digital channels if doing so threatens to siphon off in-store activity.

Allowing both scenarios to thrive requires elevating visibility and analytics tools to new heights. A clear line of sight across the ecosystem allows shippers to align production with the retailer’s current replenishment needs. Analytics like Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence also provide shippers with vital clues about consumers’ future buying habits so they and their retailer partners can stay a step ahead.

Technology is only as productive as the knowledge of the people managing it. Seasoned third-party logistics specialists understand how to design and implement a consistently successful BOPIS program that leverages cost-effective automation. They have worked extensively with all stakeholders, and can quickly adjust the go-to-market processes to optimize outcomes and avoid costly missteps.

Final Delivery Drives Loyalty or Brand Damage

If your customer's purchase isn't ready for the promised, rapid in-store fulfillment, your BOPIS strategy could have a negative result.

Online fulfillment is a fast-paced, often-unforgiving business. You are only as good as your last delivery. The margin for error narrows still further in a BOPIS transaction. Failing to execute an order after the consumer was assured the product was in stock and went out of their way to retrieve it is a breach of the “trust covenant” between the stakeholders. A BOPIS-related stock-out can seriously damage both brands, especially if a negative review spreads on social media.

The good news for shippers is that mastering this intense pivot point should result in enduring brand loyalty from consumer and retailer alike. Consumers prize convenience, and will favor retailers who make the BOPIS experience as easy as “pulling up and popping the trunk.” This goodwill extends to the products they pick up and take home.

Retailers, meanwhile, know how complicated it is to make life easy for today’s consumer.  Shippers who consistently execute will become sticky to the retailer. Product quality is obviously important. However, consumers often cannot discern between the nuances of multiple products of similar craftsmanship. What they do know, and will remember, is how, when and where they received their product. Or why they didn’t. That is how your brand will be remembered. In today’s world, logistics, more than any part of a shipper’s business, is becoming the competitive differentiator.

Navigate the New “Never Normal”

Planned properly, the BOPIS fulfillment model is a valuable tool in the highly competitive e-commerce space. 

The devil is in the execution.

Transportation Insight specializes in designing and executing supply chain strategy adjustments that empower you to provide the final mile delivery options required to wow end customers.

We created “The BOPIS Revolution: Navigating the New Never Normal” to offer insight into the many variables involved in meeting consumers’ evolving demands for service. Read it today to understand the strategies that we can help you leverage to enhance customer service, grow market share and increase competitive advantage.

Margin Management: Why Are You Selling Money-Losing SKUs?

In July, Coca-Cola announced that it was cutting some “zombie brands” and focusing its resources on more profitable lines by introducing margin management. The company has about 400 master brands, half of which are brands of little or no scale and that account for about 2% of the firm’s total revenues. 

These brands (Odwalla juice and smoothie brand was among the first to get the axe) consume resources and divert money and time away from Coca-Cola’s more profitable businesses. 

Do you know the products that are consuming your resources without delivering the profitable benefits of sale?

Following Suit

Shippers of all sizes can borrow a page from Coca-Cola’s playbook which takes the examination of SKU viability to new levels by assessing (and in some cases, eliminating) entire brand portfolios in order to determine which products are making money, and which ones aren’t. 

When you understand SKU viability, you can refine your marketing messages, pricing, pass-through costs, and other elements that determine whether you make money on an order (or not). The key is to determine which products are “winners” and which are “losers,” and then focus on the former. Weed out the products that are not making money and focus on the ones that are profitable.

Use the 80/20 Rule

The Pareto Principle (80/20 Rule) comes into play here, and asserts that roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Recognizing that 20% of your SKUs typically represent 80% of your sales volume, determine a baseline. Focus on what it costs to pick, pack and ship each of those different SKUs. 

There aren’t many companies that have a good handle on profitability at the individual SKU level, particularly when factoring in fulfillment costs, inbound costs and shipping costs. Combined, these drivers can make a major difference in an order’s profitability.

Consider the manufacturer of outdoor goods that typically sells to big box retailers. During COVID, this company began shipping directly to consumers when more people started placing orders online. Shipping a pallet of 25 outdoor umbrellas to a large retailer at no charge was a profitable venture. On the other hand, free shipping for those 9-foot, 75-pound umbrellas bound for 25 different households via Parcel takes a huge chunk out of the bottom line.

This is a situation where evaluating SKUs based on the price that customers pay doesn’t work. Offers like “Buy $50 in merchandise and get free shipping” can further complicate the circumstances. Complexity increases when orders must be shipped in multiple boxes—a reality that quickly consumes the profitability on any order. 

Find a Partner to do the Heavy Lifting

Without good transportation analytics, SKU profitability becomes an expensive guessing game. And the more SKUs you’re selling, the more complex your margin management profile will be. 

Avoiding these problems requires a pick-and-axe approach similar to what Coca-Cola is using to whittle down its brand portfolio. If you don’t have the time, staff, or technology in-house to manage it on your own, Transportation Insight is here to do the heavy lifting for you.

To help you better understand all that’s required in determining SKU profitability, we created “You Shipped it, but … Did it Make Any Money?” Download it today for strategies that will help you protect profitability on every order.

Use Logistics to Compress Cash-to-Cash Cycles

Logistics is the lifeblood of any organization. It connects suppliers, manufacturers, intermediaries, carriers and end customers with actionable data based on historical transaction patterns. Yet too often corporate leaders view logistics as a cost center instead of a competitive advantage. We find the best way to overcome that perception is to connect the dots between our deep skill set and the positive financial outcomes we can deliver for our clients.

When Transportation Insight talks about logistics as a competitive advantage, we refer to the speed to serve as much as the cost to serve. Time is money.  Companies implementing strong logistics strategies typically turn their inventory faster. They need to rely less on safety stock throughout every level of the supply chain, which is itself a cash burn. They keep goods in motion so they reach consumption points faster, and turn capital quicker.

Reduce Cash-to-Cash Cycle, Free Up Operating Capital

For definition, cash-to-cash cycle time examines the number of days of working capital an organization has tied up in managing its supply chain. The faster the cash-to-cash cycle, the fewer days an organization’s cash is unavailable for other investment. According to American Productivity and Quality Center (APQC) research, the top performers have 60-day cycle times. The bottom performers clock in at about 120 days+.

Reducing cash-to-cash cycle time involves eliminating factors (such as inventory) that tie up operating capital. Effective organizations optimize inventory to free up capital while maintaining enough stock to satisfy customer orders. This can be accomplished through a well-designed demand forecasting, comprehensive company-wide inventory optimization strategy, supported by logistics that aligns roles and responsibilities in the supply chain, and identifies processes that can be streamlined.

Streamlining order-to-cash processes can also reduce cash-to-cash cycle time because faster invoice processing and receipt of customer payment decreases the amount of time that an organization’s capital is unavailable.

Make no mistake, there are some logistics people who love inventory because it covers some of the “stumps in the water,” as we like to say. But safety stock exists because businesses struggle to match their inventory needs with final demand. Safety stock is also an impediment to optimal cash flows.

But in a lean world, there is no such thing as “safety stock.” Everything turns in its own time, and on its own velocity. Thus, it is critical to identify and root out supply chain inefficiencies at the front end. Are you optimizing inbound shipping lanes, whether domestic or international? Does your inventory strategy balance your costs with meeting customer delivery expectations? Do you have the technology and expertise to effectively manage your product velocity and shrink the cash cycle?

Companies have multiple customer channels. You may have a traditional B2B channel, an e-commerce channel, or a hybrid. Each channel may have its own dedicated inventory. They also have their own cash-to-cash cycles. They are certainly going to have their own logistical challenges. A capable logistics partner like Transportation Insight can support the unique needs of each channel to achieve the most financially desirable outcomes.

Mastering Logistics to Meet Consumer Demand

There are companies that have succeeded in re-inventing the wheel. Then there are others that prospered by improving on legacy processes. Walmart wasn’t better than any other retailer. It offered the same brand of toothpaste and laundry detergent as others did. Sam Walton’s genius lied in focusing on logistics to get goods to the shelves, and in customer’s hands, faster and cheaper than anyone else.

By putting the right product, in the right place and price, when and where the consumer wanted, Walmart accelerated cash returns for manufacturers and for itself. It also turned out to be a lethal combination-for other retailers.

Mastering the competing dynamics of transportation and inventory requirements can be a complex undertaking. You need to weigh the importance of improved working capital with ensuring that goods are always available when and where your customers need them. This is our forte.

Each day, we bring our data platforms, deep understanding of carrier networks, rate negotiating and auditing expertise, and decades of accumulated industry experience to bear to solve these problems. We are quite candid with customer feedback, and what we hear most from our clients is that we take challenges like these off their hands, provide them with rich analysis, and enable effective decision-making.

For more information, read “Move to the Front” today.

From Micro to Macro: The Effect of Social Distancing on the Supply Chain

In restaurants, they are moving tables and putting a hard maximum on the number of people allowed inside. Although the return of patrons generates badly needed revenue, moving tables apart means less diners, resulting in less money coming in the door. In order to maintain a peak level of performance, those restaurants need to turn tables and customers faster to achieve the same amount of revenue.

A similar concept will be introduced into the supply chain, as factories, warehouses and distribution centers come back online. Employees will need to consistently stay six feet apart, forcing managers to figure out how to keep up productivity while adhering to guidelines. Are you prepared for the change?

The Newest Constraint in the Supply Chain: Social Distancing

There are several supply chain constraints that most companies can plan around. These include capacity, throughput, and on occasion, emissions.

Using an Extended LEAN approach, managers and facilities are encouraged to reduce the amount of time and distance per process. This reduces waste throughout the production line, improving efficiency and ultimately providing more output with the resources already in place.

But due to social distancing, there’s a new constraint supply chain managers must deal with: the maximum amount of physical distance you can remove from production. Some of these situations are easier to plan for: Truck drivers can stay in their cabs, while using e-signatures for receipts.

Other conditions are going to be much more difficult to apply: In the interest of keeping employees healthy, they must consistently stay six feet apart. Companies now have to determine what that means for receiving, production and shipping. If employees have to maintain a safe distance, how does that affect their critical daily operations? Some companies say they are experiencing a 40 percent decrease in capacity due to the social distancing protocols.

Social Distancing Extends From the Facility and into the Network

The physical plant isn’t the only stakeholder affected by social distancing. The impact of lost production and capacity also extends to your logistics network.

If your output is slower due to social distancing, it can have a ripple effect on everything from loading trucks and time-in-transit to service guarantees. Capacity decreases mean it takes more time to load trucks and impedes trucks from moving freight from point-to-point. That cuts into your bottom line.

From there, the issues fall like dominoes. The late truck has more time on the dock, so your freight is arrives at its destination later. When it does, there could be a delivery failure due to a closed dock or a receiver bound by rules prohibiting deliveries outside a set window. Additionally, freight bills could increase because transportation providers are unwilling to wait a long time for freight loading and unloading. Your carrier partners might not be able to meet service times because of your approach to social distancing.

There are ways to approach this that will help your business move forward. Once the impact to individual facilities is determined, it’s possible to reconfigure your logistics network to meet the current capacity needs. Some of the options your team can explore include:

  • Do you need to reduce inbound material shipments until capacity can increase?
  • Should you adjust your outbound schedule to ensure you can maximize transit lanes?
  • Can your team or warehouse be more efficient in managing inbound and outbound freight?

Having a Partner to Help You Adjust for Social Distancing

It’s critically important to have a partner in your corner that not only understands how to configure logistics operations using tried and true techniques, but how to translate them to the broader supply network to balance cost, service and risk. While technology plays a key part into this transformation, these solutions need to be approached with a holistic solution in mind.

As we reopen facilities and plan for the “new normal” for the foreseeable future, it’s important to solve these problems now. Because we have no idea when social distancing practices will ease, the problems you face now won’t go away on their own. Instead, solving them will help you become a “shipper of choice” as activity ramps up. You can also maintain profitability and positively plan for the future.

In this race, Transportation Insight is your complete partner in success. Our technology tools allow you to decide between the best carriers and networking options.We can also help you drive success through supply chain mapping, optimization, and applied Extended LEAN strategies with social distancing in mind. Because we’ve worked through thousands of supply chains with hundreds of companies across industries, we know how to apply the best practices and wisdom around your current and future strategies.

Partnership matters – and Transportation Insight is prepared to help you now and well into the future. Contact us today to get started with a consultation on how your facility can manage productivity despite social distancing.

Omnichannel: 3 Ways Service Merchandise Got it Right

In its heyday, Service Merchandise was a retail force. With 413 stores and $4 billion in revenues at its peak, the company singlehandedly turned the “catalog showroom” shopping experience into one that consumers flocked to for fine jewelry, electronics, toys, and other merchandise. 

Hindsight being 20/20, modern-day concerns like high inventory carrying costs, the escalating cost of expansive retail space, and the labor-intensive nature of its decidedly non-DIY showroom should have all been red flags for Service Merchandise. Despite these oversights, the company definitely had a few things nailed when it comes to omnichannel. Let’s look at three areas where Service Merchandise excelled.

Lesson 1: Sales in the Front, Fulfillment in the Back

Service Merchandise stored inventory in the backroom versus in the front of the house and basically understood the value of the omnichannel model as far back as the 1980s.

Stores aren’t meant to be fulfillment centers. Employees don’t know how to pack boxes efficiently. They rely on their own judgment about how much packing material and product to load into a box for a ship-to-home customer. That can get expensive when dimensional minimums come into play. For example: If a box is too large relative to the weight going into the box, the shipper is going to overpay. 

Service Merchandise escaped these challenges.

  • All inventory was maintained at the store level, in the back of the house, where customers couldn’t touch it until they ordered it, initially using a clipboard and written order and later using the “Silent Sam” ordering system.
  • Employees were trained on efficient fulfillment techniques: The goods were either sent by conveyor to the customers or shipped to their homes. 

“The average price of an item sold in the store was $30. The average transaction was $55, so we were selling less than two items per transaction,” says Service Merchandise CEO Ray Zimmerman. “Because they were $30 items, it was less expensive for us to handle it on a pick and conveyor basis than it was to stack it out and let the customer pick it up.”

Obstacles emerge when fulfillment creeps into a retailer’s sales floor customer-facing roles:

  • Store employees picking orders instead of taking care of customers. 
  • Aisles congested with big carts and harried fulfillment individuals trying to fill orders quickly. 
  • Online shipments packed inefficiently by store employees untrained in the fine points of fulfillment. 
  • Unnecessary touches: product is received, unpacked, put on store shelves, retrieved, repacked and shipped back out. 
  • Multiple touches create a high volume of dunnage and corrugate waste.

Just think about how far a store employee has to walk to collect all of the items from an online order, versus someone who was working in a warehouse with very high pick densities. Warehouses also incorporate technology (i.e., pick-to-light and voice options) that makes picking and packing more efficient.

Lesson 2: Technology is Integral to Omni-Channel Success.

Retail has come a long way since the 1980s, but it’s clear that Service Merchandise’s leaders had a knack for understanding their customer base and serving it well. They also weren’t afraid to invest in technology long before terms like omnichannel, automation, robotics, and Amazon were common vernacular for retailers. 

“We had a great group of IT people – and that was unique for most companies at the time,” Zimmerman says. “At the time, there was no point-of-sale system that had an alpha numeric. They were programming in BASIC language, it was very simple, but that’s how we developed all these systems.”

Those systems monitored inventory, too.

“We had to keep inventory tight and we spent a lot of time monitoring to make sure that stores were making inventory adjustments,” Zimmerman says. “If they didn’t have any adjustments, the store wasn’t doing its job verifying inventory count; if there were too many, the store was having a shrinkage problem.”

If afforded today’s technology advances, omnichannel data management and its innovative mindset, here’s what a profitable “Service Merchandise 2020” might look like.

  • An early adopter of warehouse automation, it deploys advanced technologies like robotics.
  • Warehouse pickers are equipped with wearable technology that enables them to do their jobs faster in a hands-free environment. 
  • Integrating automated co-bots, conveyors and cranes into its stockrooms, it effectively leverages technology to shorten fulfillment times and hit two-day and one-day shipping windows.
  • Leverage artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to optimally determine placement and levels inventory based on predicted customer demand. 

Lesson 3: Give Customers an Experience

Customers like going into stores to look at and touch products. 

Service Merchandise knew that its customers really wanted to experience a product before buying it, which meant stores didn’t really need to have all of their inventory visible and stacked to the ceiling when those customers walked in the door. 

With its part-catalog/part-showroom approach, Service Merchandise was meeting customers where they were in the ‘80s.

“The catalog was not for people to order from. It was an advertising tool – people could pick what they want and come into the store,” Zimmerman says. “If that customer drove 3 blocks to come into our store, they expected to get it. We had to be in stock every day, on every item.”

Many people still remember fondly a key aspect of the Service Merchandise experience, even if the retailer’s dominant presence has faded.

“When the company liquidated, I bought the name to keep it in the family. I put up a website – it didn’t sell much merchandise, but it got a tremendous amount of comments,” Zimmerman says. “Many wanted to tell me how much they loved watching the merchandise coming down the conveyor belt.”

Putting it all Together

Retailers are still trying to figure out the right recipe for omnichannel success. A multichannel approach to sales focused on providing customers with a seamless shopping experience — be it online, on a desktop, via a mobile device, by telephone, or in a brick-and-mortar store — omnichannel is pushing companies into new terrain when it comes to fulfillment, transportation, and delivery.

To help retailers understand how to improve omnichannel performance, we created “Prime Before Its Time: The Service Merchandise Experience.”

Download the guide to learn how the retail innovations of yesterday can help you deliver a prime performance today.

The Service Merchandise Experience: Omnichannel in the ‘80s

Standalone brick-and-mortar structures with expansive parking lots — most of which were packed with cars during business hours — Service Merchandise stores were where people went, catalog in hand, to look at product displays and check off their selections on order forms – or in a computer terminal. A few minutes later, their goods appeared on a conveyor straight out of the onsite stockroom.

Let’s explore Service Merchandise’s roots, dig into its retail strategy, and see how its strategies for customer experience can apply in today’s omnichannel retail environment. 

Customer Experience Innovator

Headquartered in Brentwood, TN, Service Merchandise was built on an innovative business. The company broke new ground in a handful of retail landscapes. In fact, many of its competitive moves were well ahead of their time, leading us to believe that Service Merchandise may have actually mastered “omnichannel retail” decades before the term was even coined.  model. Initially a variety store opened in 1934, it went from being a chain of dime stores to a catalog business. Operating from warehouses in Tennessee, that business eventually morphed into the showroom concept that made Service Merchandise famous. 

  • 1980 – Allowed customers to place orders via specially equipped TV sets.
  • 1981 – Developed a computer program that used demographics and a specific location’s characteristics to predict the market.
  • 1982 – Installed a cash register that allowed customers to check on product availability and order merchandise right on the sales floor. 

Three years later, it implemented a computerized inventory replenishment system that helped it reduce inventory carrying costs while also reducing its out-of-stocks. In 1986 it opened an automated, 752,000-square-foot warehouse in New York.

Convenient Fulfillment Options

For retailers, having the right inventory at the right place and at the right time has become table stakes. Service Merchandise served multiple channels efficiently from its brick-and-mortar locations. It had walk-in business, for example, and it also had a successful catalog component. Really, the latter is no different than today’s online environment, where “order online-pickup in store” is the newest dynamic that retailers are trying to harness. 

“The catalog was not for people to order from,” says Raymond Zimmerman, CEO of Service Merchandise. “It was an advertising tool – people could pick what they want and come into the store. If that customer drove three blocks to come into our store, they expected to get it. We had to be in stock every day, on every item.”

Service Merchandise also leveraged brick and mortar locations to meet retail customers where they were. Inspired by UK-based retailer Argos’ fulfillment model that allowed freight deliveries to a secured inventory room without store access, Service Merchandise tested a warehouse-only model. 

In Metro Atlanta, a handful of 13,000 square-foot suburban stores opened with the catalog as the main attraction along with a few display items. Customers could access Service Merchandise inventory in the warehouse and have it shipped to the catalog store for next-day pick-up.

Everything was in stock, but very little was on display. 

“All the online guys are opening brick-and-stores or they are creating places where you can pick up merchandise in the existing stores,” Zimmerman says. “That’s where we were going – to have all those 10-15,000-square foot stores, so we could open hundreds of them close to the customer. … In the ‘80s and ‘90s, we were where everybody is trying to get to now. It was the implementation that was our failure.”

The retailer developed inventory management systems that, if one location was out of stock, store staff could identify the five closest stores with the item on site. The customer could pick it up there or have it shipped to their home by UPS. 

“We took that system and expanded it so that you could go to a store in Columbus, Ohio, pay for something and send it down the conveyor belt in the Tuscaloosa, Alabama store,” Zimmernan says. “At the time, customers couldn’t go online and order and then pick up in the store.”

Customers Want to Experience their Purchases

Service Merchandise knew that its customers really wanted to experience a product before buying it. They like to go into the stores to look at and touch products. Stores didn’t really need to have all of their inventory visible and stacked to the ceiling when those customers walked in the door. 

But they did need to make sure items promoted in the catalog were available in local store inventory.

“The hottest item that wasn’t in the catalog was less important than the worst item in that catalog,” Zimmerman says. “The customer that comes in has pre-shopped and they knew what they want.” 

So the question becomes, is there really a need for high levels of inventory on the retail floor, if all customers want to do is experience the product versus walk out the door with it? 

Ultimately, customer experience was enhanced by the Service Merchandise strategy of separating the sales floor from order fulfillment in the warehouse.

Many retailers trying to fulfill multiple channels from physical stores often threaten their in-store success. Likely earmarked for in-store or curbside pick-up, those orders consume labor and get in the way of a pleasant shipping experience for customers. The sales floor isn’t very welcoming when aisles are congested with big carts and harried fulfillment individuals trying to quickly fill carts.

Omnichannel Fulfillment Jeopardizes Performance

We’re in an era where higher fulfillment costs continue to erode retail margins. It’s time for stores to think harder about how to fulfill orders across all channels while also factoring in parcel transportation costs and how to package in a way that minimizes dimensional charges.

Knowing the struggles that retailers face as they navigate the complexities of omnichannel fulfillment, reflecting on how Service Merchandise approached the customer experience could give companies a clear advantage in the marketplace. 

To help retailers understand how to protect customer experience while balancing the cost of service, we created “Prime Before Its Time: The Service Merchandise Experience.”

Download the guide to learn how the retail innovations of yesterday can help you deliver a prime performance today.