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Are Retailers Planning for the Most Optimistic Holiday Sales Scenarios?

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Earlier this month, Supply Chain Matters featured a commentary focused on predictions of upcoming holiday sales.  Our commentary referenced the latest forecast from the National Retail Federation (NRF) indicating that holiday sales in the coming quarter are expected to increase 4.1 percent, which in monetary terms, represents the largest rise in holiday sales in the past three years. We further noted an interview on business network CNBC featuring the NRF chief economist indicating that the 4.1 percent may be on the low-end, considering the current trend toward lower gasoline prices and increased employment in the U.S…

A new data point is a recent joint release from both the NRF and Hackett Associates that forecasts ocean container shipments will rise 6.4 percent in October, compared to last year’s monthly volume.  The report does caution that August and September port volumes saw modest increases. A report published by The Wall Street Journal interpreted this latest container data prediction as an indicator of more confidence on the part of retailers to bring-in additional holiday sales inventory.

For curiosity, we re-visited the port container volumes for the Port of Los Angeles for the periods of July through September, which is traditional high volume inbound period, contrasting TEU volumes in 2013, vs those this year.  Indeed, for the three months, 2014 TEU inbound load volumes this year are trending up roughly 6 percent from 2013 levels.  That is in the backdrop of the continued uncertainty of a potential port labor stoppage as union labor talks have continued since labor contract suspension earlier in summer.  Therefore, if October inbound container volume trends even higher, as indicated by NRF’s forecast, than perhaps retailers have indeed become more optimistic.

We would appreciate hearing from Sales and Operations planners and procurement professionals residing within retail and wholesale supply chains. 

We have added a Supply Chain Matters interactive polling question: (Located on the lower portion of our right-hand panel) Is your organization planning increased inventory levels, relative to 2013, to support expected 2014 holiday sales? The poll is anonymous and will provide trending results. Let’s all see what those closest to the action indicate.  We will run this poll for the next three weeks.

Like many of you, we will also closely monitor inbound container stats for October.

In the meantime, let’s all observe and best wishes in the upcoming 10 weeks of craziness.

Bob Ferrari


NRF Issues Optimistic Forecast of Holiday Sales- Be Watchful and Be Prepared

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Business media and online channels are abuzz regarding the latest rather optimistic forecast of expected retail holiday sales issued by the National Retail Federation (NRF), an industry trade group of the retail industry. However, retail supply chains need to be prepared for even more challenges and unknowns in the coming weeks leading up to the end of year.

The NRF is forecasting that upcoming retail sales in the months of November and December (excluding autos, gasoline and restaurants) will increase by 4.1 percent over 2013 levels, equating to nearly $617 billion. According to the NRF, retail sales incurred an actual 3.1 percent increase during this same time period in 2013. The current forecast marks the first time since 2011 that holiday sales would increase by more than 4 percent.

In an interview with business network CNBC, NRF’s chief economist indicated that the 4 percent increase could be on the low end, given the current downward trend in energy prices that are benefitting consumers.

Also today, Shop.org released its 2014 online holiday sales forecast, expecting sales in November and December to grow between 8 – 11 percent over last holiday season to as much as $105 billion.  Holiday non-store sales in 2013 grew 8.6 percent.

In its release, the NRF wisely warns retailers that shoppers will remain extremely price sensitive and that retailers will have to overcome such challenges through differentiation in value and exclusivity. That trend was reinforced by a recent PwC study based on a poll of more than 2,200 consumers across the U.S. that spanned all demographics and income levels, and defined the holiday season as September through January. The PwC study reported that 84 percent of respondents indicated that they plan to spend the same or less than they did in 2013.  That is a somewhat conflicting data point relative to spending levels and for us, is a clear indicator of continued price sensitivity among the majority of consumers.  Thus, the retail winners in 2014 are those with the most attractive promotions and merchandising creativity.

Even more confusing is presumptions that termed “webrooming” (researching online and buying in physical store) the opposite of “showrooming” (research and touch in-store and buy online) will prevail this year. We refer readers to various commentaries, including our own,  written at the conclusion of the 2013 holiday buying period regarding lessons learned.  In early January, the Wall Street Journal produced ShopperTrak trending data related to total retail foot traffic since 2010 that clearly indicates a significant reduction in store visits, by a factor of almost a half since 2010.  In our Supply Chain Matters 2013 lessons learned commentary, we addressed information data security (credit card data breaches) coupled with logistics and transportation capacity breakdowns as important lessons. Some of those learnings are now reflected in conversations among retailers and their logistics partners.

What does all of this mean for retail supply chain teams? 

It essentially means that the challenges in the upcoming holiday surge are going to be even more dynamic  than last year and supply chain agility, flexibility and patience will be all important factors. 

Sales and Operations teams will probably have dynamic, perhaps even heated  discussions with merchandising and marketing on the timing of promotions, including how late to keep the channels open for orders and guarantee holiday delivery for consumers.

Planning for inventory needs in the correct fulfillment channel will be another challenge and will require a lot of demand sensing and day-to-day collaboration with marketing and merchandising teams. There are but 11 weeks remaining of planning time. Because of the threat of a west coast dock labor stoppage, most of the inventory has arrived and is making its way to various distribution points. Similar to last year, the period between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays is a short 26 days and the severity of winter weather conditions will again be all important in assuring continuous logistics flow without last year’s numerous logjams.

One very important other wildcard to monitor is whether economically stressed but savvy consumers, who may have lost trust in the data and information security practices of retailer systems, trend toward shop online and pickup and pay by cash at retail stores at the very last minute.  That may well be the 2014 doomsday scenario for retail supply chains that lack adequate agility in inventory re-positioning, multi-channel and logistics partner fulfillment capabilities.

Good luck, best wishes and let the planning and execution begin.

Bob Ferrari


Many Signs of a Highly Competitive Online Holiday Buying Season

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Streaming reports over the past several weeks provide every indication to Supply Chain Matters that supply chain teams need to be prepared for highly competitive, promotional-driven online buying activity in the upcoming holiday buying surge. If there were thoughts that last year’s period was stressful, we venture that this year will bring similar stress. As we have further noted in prior commentaries, the evidence is growing that shoppers have permanently altered their shopping habits in favor of online. Thus, this year will provide interesting online challenges and we predict another round of blame games.

Similar to last year, the period between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays is relatively short.  If the combination of bad weather and savvy online consumers plays out again when online consumers waited for the most attractive last-minute deals, online business results will be factored by which online retailer offers the best promotions as well as free shipping.

Let’s reflect on some current data points.

UPS, which was literally thrown under the bus as the Grinch that stole Christmas in 2013, recently announced an all-out effort to augment its operational capabilities during the peak holiday shipping period.  These efforts result from a $500 million investment by UPS after last year’s incidents were evaluated. Included is that for the first time in the parcel shipping’s firm’s 107 year history, UPS will operate full U.S. based air and ground operations on the day after the Thanksgiving holiday, the traditional Black Friday shopping period, in order to stay ahead of expected surge in delivery activity. UPS is also implementing plans to augment its package-car capabilities by an additional 10 percent over last year’s levels as well as dramatically flexing its capacity and intermodal capabilities at its Worldport central hub. Brown will also deploy what it terms as pop-up “mobile distribution center villages” that will function across various U.S, network points beginning with the expected holiday delivery surge. A complete detail of the UPS surge effort can be garnered from this published DCVelocity article.

No doubt parcel delivery giant FedEx will also have augmented capabilities and as noted in our recent commentary, the U.S. Postal Service has aggressively jumped-in offering both Sunday delivery and more aggressive small parcel shipping rates.

Retailers have also had to implement contingency ocean container transport plans amid the ongoing threat of west coast port disruptions prompted by ongoing labor negotiations. That may lead to earlier product promotions to offload bloated inventories.

Many online retailers have garnered their own online marketing and customer fulfillment learning from 2013. Some examples: Staples announced a series of enhancements to the omnichannel experience for its customers, including the ability to buy online and pick-up purchases at a local retail outlet that same-day. According to the announcement, Staples.com will automatically display the inventory available at the three closest retail brick and mortar stores, and indication that such stores now become online mini distribution sites. Customer have the continued option for shipping their online purchases direct to a local store with free shipping. In late August, Macy’s announced its $1 billion technology and infrastructure investment in omnichannel capabilities. That effort now includes the ability for online consumers to order online and pick-up their merchandise within 675 full-line stores. Wal-Mart has plowed $500 million into its new online E-commerce business, including the addition of three new online fulfillment centers, and had plans to invest an additional $150 million in the current fiscal year. Last year, the retailer was cited as having the highest online sales growth, 30 percent compared to Amazon’s 20 percent gain. Wal-Mart now has upwards of $10 billion of total revenues coming from its online channels, and no-doubt this aggressive retailer will be offering consumers attractive online offers.

Other online retailers such as Best Buy, recovering from previous stings with balancing brick and mortar and online capabilities are also preparing for more aggressive omnichannel support capabilities.

In a prior Supply Chain Matters commentary stemming from the IBM Smarter Commerce event, we highlighted what IBM described a “dark store” which is one that can serve as a localized fulfillment entity for limited volumes, or be able to convert to a broader based customer shipment fulfillment entity after retail closing hours. We may well observe some pilot applications of this capability in the coming period.

And then there is the gorilla of online fulfillment, Amazon, which continues to provide indications that it will again be prepared to offer aggressive product promotional and free shipping capabilities, including same-day delivery orchestrated by Amazon’s own package delivery network. There have been published implications that Google and its Google Shopping Express will offer retailers added options for online promotional activity including same-day or Sunday delivery.

B2C focused marketing and supply chain teams have planned all year for the upcoming holiday buying surge. No doubt, there have been budget dynamics as to which segment received the bulk of investments, the online marketing and promotional side, or the back-end online customer service and fulfillment.  Preparations have been made and the ultimate test comes in but a few weeks. New learning as well as finger-point will be ever more interesting to observe.

Keep your web browser connected to Supply Chain Matters for our continued coverage of B2C/B2B omnichannel commerce learning during the 2014 holiday surge.

Bob Ferrari


Napa Valley Assesses Damage to Wine Inventories and Production Equipment

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Business owners in the Napa Valley area of California woke up today to the after-effects of the 6.0 magnitude earthquake that struck the region on Sunday.  The Napa Valley was very close to the epicenter of this earthquake and we all know and appreciate what this region’s most important commercial product is, namely great wines with global brand identity.

Reports indicate that the wine industry may have suffered some significant damage as a result of the quake and its aftershocks.  A report produced by business network CNBC features video and reports of damaged wine caskets and bottled inventory among growers and distributors, some of very expensive varieties. According to a report by CNN, the damage was isolated, some wineries being hit very hard, others not so. Wine producers and wholesalers are in the process of assessing overall damage along with trying to save stored aging wine.  Wine within damaged barrels will need to be transferred to other safe, secure, temperature-controlled facilities and the challenge is securing both additional barrels and available controlled storage that was not damaged. While insurance can compensate for lost inventory, exquisite wine cannot be replaced, and the harvesting and aging process must begin anew.  Larger producers may be in the position to sustain losses than smaller, specialized producers. That may well leave a hole in future revenues or cause a supply and demand imbalance, depending on the varietal product. The market for wine itself has its own challenges and is very much dependent on variety and brand.

Last week, we ran across a a syndicated AP published story regarding the bourbon industry.  Similar to wine making, it is an industry where long-term bets are made concerning current and future market demand. Distillers fund inventory aging for millions of gallons of product over a 2-5-10-15 year horizon. Super premium brands, currently the most popular, can often fetch large profits, but have to age 6 years or more.  The overall market for bourbon is booming, and distillers and distributors are banking on the continued boom in international demand to continue over the longer-term horizon.  Imagine your supply chain’s overall inventory averaging over multiple years. We observed that dynamic when earthquakes impacted the parmesan cheese producing areas of Northern Italy in June of 2012.

Wine and spirits supply chains feature unique challenges in long-term inventory management and associated supply and demand pricing strategies. Risk is an inherent factor, and major supply chain disruption caused by a natural disaster can be devastating to short and longer-term business results. They also add a new and far different aspect of product demand management challenges.

Napa wine producers will continue to recover from this natural disaster and hopefully, all producers, large and small, will be able to recover.  However, our community has yet another reminder of the fragile nature of today’s industry supply chains which can be significantly disrupted by a single natural disaster or event.

Bob Ferrari

 


Boeing Initiates Tactical and Strategic Supply Chain Moves

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Commercial aerospace and aircraft producer Boeing has recently initiated some supply chain risk mitigation and strategic sourcing moves which demonstrate responses to important business needs.

Many headlines of late report on the continuing tensions among Russia and the United States concerning ongoing events in the Ukraine. Today’s Wall Street Journal reports (paid subscription or metered view) that certain aerospace manufacturers, namely Boeing and United Technologies, have been augmenting safety stock supplies of titanium, a critical material utilized in the fabrication of critical aircraft components. One of the world’s largest producers of this material is VSMPO-Avisma, which has a parent company with direct ties to the government of Russia. VSMPO is reported as supplying upwards of 30 percent of the total volume requirements used in the aerospace industry each year. Ukraine, currently involved in political and social unrest, provides almost all of the concentrates used by VSMPO. The combination of severe economic sanctions being placed on the Russian economy and the unrest in Ukraine has logically prompted concerns about the continuity of titanium supply.

In its reporting, the WSJ cites sources as indicating that Boeing and UA have been stockpiling as much as six months of safety stock supply of highly customized titanium forgings, which are supplied by a single provider such as VSMPO.  Boeing confirmed to the WSJ the existence of the strategic reserves from its Russian supplier, with the material accounting for 15 percent of the airframe weight of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. UA utilizes the subject titanium forgings to produce landing gears for Boeing and other producers, as well aircraft engine components for its Pratt & Whitney division. VSMPO further confirmed that customers had placed buffers in place as part of their risk management planning and that customers would go back to buying as needed for standard production. The WSJ further reports that Airbus has not acknowledged a safety stock strategy for titanium forgings.

Inventory management strategies are often a flash point among discussions involving supply chain planners and finance.  However, insuring continuity of strategic supply components can be a far different dialogue.  Supply Chain Matters has made note of other previous decisions made within industry supply chains to insure strategic continuity of supply when significant risk conditions are present.

South Carolina Facility Tapped

Electing to further dual source production, Boeing announced that the largest to date Dreamliner model, the 787-10 aircraft, scheduled for market delivery in 2018, will be built solely within the company’s non-union production assembly facility in North Charleston South Carolina. Statements to business and general media indicate that the sourcing decision was prompted by the stretched length of the aircraft’s fuselage.  The suppliers of this 114 foot long stretch fuselage are within Italy and Japan, and normally the fuselage components are flown in on a special fitted Boeing-owned 747 Dreamlifter cargo plane. Boeing indicates that the elongated fuselage components required for the 787-10 will not fit the existing cargo aircraft.    Boeing 787 production line

Regarding the South Carolina sourcing decision, a published report by the Seattle Times reports: “It makes clearer the profound impact of Boeing’s 2009 decision to bypass its unionized stronghold in Washington in favor of building a second 787 assembly line in nonunion South Carolina. In six years, Dreamliner final assembly will be equally divided between the East and West Coast sites.” The Times report further notes: “So by the end of the decade, the prospect for Boeing widebody-jet production is that North Charleston and Everett will each be rolling out seven Dreamliners per month, while Everett will in addition be producing up to eight 777s per month, plus two 767 tankers for the Air Force.”

Meanwhile, a labor union among Boeing’s Everett Washington production facilities were naturally not pleased with the sourcing decision, indicating that while not surprised, they were certainly disappointed in the final decision.

Reports indicate that the Everett facility will continue to sustain a production level of seven Dreamliners per month while the North Charleston facility will ramp-up from three aircraft per-month today, to five in 2016 and seven by the end of the decade. According to Boeing, both production facilities will have similar production practices and standards.

Bob Ferrari

 


Supply Chain Matters News Capsule for July 25- Zara, Pratt & Whitney, Hershey, Mars

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It’s the end of the calendar work and this commentary is our running news capsule of developments related to previous Supply Chain Matters posted commentaries or news developments.

In this capsule commentary, we include the following topics: Zara Implementing RFID Tagging System; Hershey and Other Candy Providers Raise Prices to Compensate for Higher Commodity and Production Costs; Pratt and Whitney and IBM Embark on Predictive Analytics Initiative; U.S. Government Announces New Rules Pertaining to Rail Shipments of Crude Oil

 

Zara Implementing RFID Tagging System

Reports indicate that Zara, a known icon in world class logistics and supply chain management, is implementing a microprocessor-based RFID tagging system to facilitate item-level tracking from factory to point-of-sale. This initiative was revealed at Zara’s parent company, Inditex SA, annual stockholder meeting earlier this month.

The tracking system embeds chips inside of the plastic alarms attached to various garments and supports real-time inventory tracking.  The retailer indicated that the system is already installed in 700 of its retail stores with a further rollout expected to be 500 stores per year.  That would imply that a full rollout to all 6300 Inditex controlled stores would entail a ten year rollout plan.  No financial figures have been shared regarding the cost aspects of this plan.

 

Hershey and Other Candy Providers Raise Prices to Compensate for Higher Commodity and Production Costs

One of our predictions for 2014 (available for complimentary download from Research Center above) called for stable commodity and supplier prices with certain exceptions.  One of those exceptions is turning out to be both the cost of cocoa and transportation.

Citing current and expected higher commodity, packaging, utility and transportation costs, Hershey announced last week an increase in wholesale prices by a weighted average of 8 percent, which is rather significant. That was followed by an announcement from Mars Chocolate North America this week that it will institute price hikes amounting to seven percent. A Mars statement issued to the Wall Street Journal indicated that it has been three years since the last announced price hike and that Mars have experienced a dramatic increase in the costs of doing business.

According to the WSJ, cocoa grindings, a key gauge for chocolate product demand, has surged over 5 percent across Asia and 4.5 percent in North America.

By our lens, the next move will more than likely come from Mondalez International.

For consumers, indulging in Hershey Kisses, M&M’s and Snickers will be more expensive.

 

Pratt and Whitney and IBM Embark on Predictive Analytics Initiative

Another of our 2014 predictions called for increased technology investments in predictive analytics.  One indication of that trend was an announcement indicating that aircraft engine provider Pratt & Whitney is partnering with IBM to compile and analyze data from upwards of 4000 commercial aircraft engines currently in service.  This effort is directed at developing more predictive indications of potential engine maintenance needs.  According to the announcement, each aircraft engine can generate up to a half terabyte of operational performance data per flight. According to an IBM statement: “By applying real time analytics to structured and unstructured data streams generated by aircraft engines, we can find insights and enable proactive communication and guidance to Pratt & Whitney’s services network and customers.

Previously, Accenture announced a partner effort with General Electric’s Aviation business to apply predictive analytics in areas of fuel-efficient flight paths.

 

U.S. Government Announces New Rules Pertaining to Rail Shipments of Crude Oil

As a response to heightened calls for increased safety of trains carrying crude oil across the United States, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced this week a set of comprehensive new rules for the transportation of crude oil and other flammable materials such as ethanol. The move follows similar efforts announced by a Canadian transportation regulatory agency.

The new rules call for enhanced tank car standards along with new operational requirements for defined high hazard flammable trains that include braking controls and speed restrictions. The new rule proposes the phase-out of the thousands of older and deemed unsafe DOT 111 tank cars within two years. Rail carriers would be required to conduct a rail routing risk assessment that considers 27 safety and security factors and trains containing one million gallons of Bakken crude oil must notify individual U.S. state entities about the operation of such trains.  Trains that haul tank cars not meeting enhanced tank car standards are restricted to 40 miles-per-hour while trains carrying enhanced tank cars would be limited to a 50 miles-per-hour speed restriction. Further under the proposed new rules, the ethanol industry will have up to 2018 to improve or replace tank cars that carry that fuel.

The proposed new rules are now open for industry and public comment over the next 60 days and are expected to go into effect early in 2015. According to various business media reports, there are upwards of 80,000 DOT-111 rail cars currently transporting crude and ethanol shipments.  When the new U.S. and Canadian rules take effect, there is likely to be a boon period for railcar producers and retro-fitters.

 


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