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Severe Congestion and Paralysis Among U.S. West Coast Ports- Supply Chain Matters Update Four

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In last week’s Update Three commentary regarding the current crisis involving the near paralysis among the U.S. West Coast ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Supply Chain Matters highlighted that conditions on the ground were not showing any signs of improvement.  As this week draws to a close, the situation appears to be deteriorating even more, and now involves clear impacts and continued disruption for both U.S. exports as well as imports.

Last week, the National Retail Federation (NRF) published an editorial with the statement: “The sudden change in tone is alarming and suggests that a shutdown of the ports — either from a walkout by labor or a lockout by management — is imminent.” The NRF has since been joined by other industry associations  including the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and 60 other organizations representing agricultural growers.

Agricultural exports such as apples, forest products, potatoes and other crops are now jeopardized.  Growers indicate that Far East buyers are now cancelling orders and moving to alternative sources of supply. According to a report from industry trade group, Agriculture Transportation Coalition, the consequences of the current port congestion are being felt throughout the United States. The railroads are unable to bring agriculture products from the Midwest and the South to West Coast ports because of the port congestion crisis. In addition, ocean carriers continue to attempt to pass on their increased costs by imposing draconian congestion surcharge fees on U.S. exporters and importers.

A published report in American Shipper (registered sign-up or paid subscription) now indicates that formal labor negotiations among the lead negotiators of the international longshoreman’s union and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) are currently in recess and not expected to resume until December 2. The publication characterizes this development as: “bad news for importers and exporters hoping for a quick agreement and rapid restoration of normal operations at West Coast ports.”

A new wrinkle concerning labor work stoppages expanded earlier in the week as independent truck drivers contracted by trucking firms serving both ports initiated multi-day job actions seeking fair wages and better working conditions. These job actions expanded to five trucking firms serving the port complex as of Monday.  Truck drivers, mostly hired as independent contractors, have had longstanding grievances with local trucking firms and now the Teamsters labor union has taken the current port crisis as an opportunity to leverage driver demands to be recognized as full-time employees.

We again echo our Supply Chain Matters advice that industry supply chains impacted by the current west coast port disruption should be in full response management mode and seeking alternative options for both imports and exports from these ports.  The situation is such that there appears to be little indication of improvement and further indications of shutdown, lock-out or government imposed mediation. Response time to save holiday revenue budgets is in critical stages, too late to save the Black Friday-Cyber Monday holiday weekend, and essential to save customer December and January holiday fulfillment commitments.

We may well observe that the winners and losers of the 2014 holiday buying surge were those individual industry supply chain teams that demonstrated the most resiliency and responsiveness to the west coast port debacle.

Bob Ferrari


Severe Congestion at West Coast Ports- The Perfect Storm Appears

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Supply Chain Matters provides a further update for our global supply chain community of readers regarding the building crisis of congestion that now surrounds U.S. west coast ports. Gantry_Load_2

In last week’s commentary we echoed comments from observers that described a logistical nightmare that could undermine the best laid plans for the all-important holiday fulfillment surge period.  One week later, various media and on-the-ground reports paint a picture indicating that the crisis is worsening and that retailers and manufacturers are well into contingency scenario planning. The situation has further spread to other ports including Seattle and Tacoma, with a report indicating that truck queues at Tacoma stretching several miles long. On this Friday afternoon there is no doubt that Sales and Operations and supply chain execution teams are manning the phones, terminals and supply chain business network systems to figure out their scenario options.

A report this week from business network CNBC clearly points to the confluence of forces undermining this building crisis. Shipping companies and port operators are pointing their fingers at the ILWU labor union for orchestrating work slowdowns in the shadows on ongoing labor contract talks.  A spokesperson for west coast port operator, Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) is quoted as indicating that terminals that had averaged 25-35 moves per hour were experiencing less than 10.  Yesterday, the PMA indicated that the union was not dispatching adequate levels of highly skilled crane operators to unload ships. Union representatives are pointing to a severe shortage of truck chassis and of truck drivers as causes.  As of yesterday, a report indicates that 14 ships are now anchored off Los Angeles and Long Beach waiting for space, double the number of last week.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) is now seeking the personal intervention of President Obama citing an obvious sudden change of tone among the PMA and the ILWU and suggesting a full shutdown of every west coast port may be imminent.

Regardless of the finger-pointing, the situation has fast become the perfect storm scenario that many had feared and industry supply chains need to deal with the realities. This perfect storm has a strong potential to cascade further into the upcoming holiday fulfillment surge, dragging consumer product manufacturers into the effects.  Need we painfully remind our readers that the Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping events is a mere three weeks from today.

A published report in today’s edition of The Wall Street Journal indicates that Wal-Mart and Kohl’s had shipments arrive earlier than usual, and while caught-up in the current crisis, delays are not having a major impact on current merchandising plans.  In contrast, the parent of Ann Taylor and Loft stores blamed a shortfall of sales in the recently completed quarter because of delayed shipment and the shifting of inbound goods to more expensive airfreight channels. These are all indicators of the impact of proactive risk planning on the part of retailers. However, larger retailers often have the resources to be able to cushion disruption or finance earlier pre-holiday inventory movements than smaller or cash-strapped brick and mortar or online retailers.

We therefore re-iterate that retail supply chains are now too-deep into the holiday execution window with little tolerance or patience for finger-pointing or posturing. Even if labor contract talks were to come to a hasty final agreement, which is now not very likely, it will do little to salvage the current backlogged condition. It will take additional weeks to dig out of the current mess.

Supply chain teams need to be in full-on contingency planning mode since supply chain execution is now the bogey of the all-important holiday business goal revenue attainment. For some retailers, financial survival is at-stake.

The obvious question now turns to making good on critical holiday focused revenue expectations. From our lens, last year’s last-minute shipping snafu’s for destined holiday goods are in-jeopardy of repeating. Retailers who did not plan for the current crisis will have to figure out ways to offload products in December leading to our previously described doomsday scenario- that retailers delay their most aggressive promotions until the very last days before the Christmas holiday when inventory is hopefully in-place.

The west coast port crisis by default, now engages FedEx, UPS and other surface and air carriers as retailers turn the emphasis toward priority movements and just-in-time inventory offload promotions. Further, it will be especially interesting to observe how Amazon, Google, Wal-Mart and other large online players respond or take competitive advantage to the developing logistics perfect storm scenarios.

As for port operators, organized labor, ocean container lines and their logistics partners, best you address and solve the confluence of forces that resulted in this muddle.  Yes, ongoing labor contract negotiations are a factor, but there are other industry shortcomings becoming evident that point to lack of proper surge planning.

Last year, UPS, and to some extent FedEx, were thrown under the proverbial bus by retailers for non-performance at the most critical time period. In 2014, the creditability of west coast ports and indeed the surface shipping industry is at-stake for being the Grinch’s of Christmas.

Bob Ferrari


HP’s Proposed Corporate Split- A Supply Chain Matters First-Take Perspective

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Today, business and general media have been echoing the blockbuster news of the Hewlett Packard announcement indicating that HP desires to split itself into two separate companies. In this posting, we share our initial Supply Chain Matters impressions of this proposed breakup from both a global supply chain and information technology provider perspectives.

According to HP’s announcement, the company’s recently combined personal computer and printer business will split from its corporate hardware and services operations.  The former is proposed to be named HP Inc. and will have Dion Weisler, a current executive in that operation, as its new CEO while the latter will be named Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, and have current HP CEO Meg Whitman at the helm. However, most of HP’s current profits have come from the combined PC and printer side.

Both of the split entities would have an equal portion of upwards of $50 billion in revenues, but the various reports we have been reading indicate that the strategy for HP Inc. will be more about generating cash while HP Enterprise will be positioned for growth in enterprise and cloud computing areas. Reports further indicated that HP management has suggested that the current near $20 billion in outstanding debt may be placed on the HP Inc. unit itself, allowing the Enterprise unit more options in further strategic deals. 

The stated goal for this split is to provide both businesses with a sharper, more focused response to changing customer requirements. We are not all convinced, at this point.  Wall Street interests obviously will have a far different view.The proposed split has been targeted to be completed by the end of fiscal year 2015, subject to regulatory and stockholder approval.

Needless to state, there is no shortage of opinions regarding this significant announcement, especially since Ms. Whitman, three years ago, declared to customers and stockholders that HP will remain a single innovative company.  Since that time, HP has already shed upwards of 36,000 people as a result of various subsequent re-structuring programs with the ultimate goal being a range of between 45,000-50,000 job cuts.  With today’s proposed split announcement, the number is now pegged at 55,000 total job cuts.

In 2011, HP proposed a spinoff of its PC division, an announcement that ultimately led to the short CEO leadership reign of Leo Apotheker. Our Supply Chain Matters perspective at the time was that such a decision would unwind the global supply chain high volume leverage benefits that HP had garnered in the strategic procurement of hardware components, as well as raise yet another round of uncertainty for HP’s customers and supply chain partners. That view was later reinforced in a Wall Street Journal report published after our commentary.

The same concern remains with today’s announcement, although the combination of PC’s and printers retains some leverage. To calm such fears, we read one report stating that CEO Whitman has indicated that the two companies will have a “supply chain arrangement” that allows them to jointly negotiate strategic purchases. We are not that confident that such an arrangement has been all that successful among other large firms. Further, if one of the entities is burdened with the current total debt load that may not help in negotiating or consummating long-term, multi-year supplier agreements that often require up-front cash. Today, overall supply chain leadership is decentralized among HP’s business units. With this split, that model will have special significance.

In its reporting last week and this weekend, the Wall Street Journal revealed that for most of the year, HP held merger talks with storage systems provider EMC Corp, a deal that would have created an estimated $130 billion in combined revenues. Although those talks were reported as ended, the WSJ speculates that today’s proposed split could pave the way for a combination of HP Enterprise and EMC down the road. If that indeed is the strategy being played out, than the global supply chain leverage benefits from a combined HP/EMC, or another existing IT infrastructure hardware provider can buffer some of the loss of global supply chain volume leverage.

From an overall supply chain,B2B business network and applications perspective, the proposed split affords the HP Enterprise entity the opportunity to more aggressively innovate products in cloud-based systems, big-data analytics and decision-making as well as support for IT business process and cloud outsourcing.  That may well depend on what ultimately transpires in further announcements in the coming months.  There is the possibility that HP Enterprise could be adsorbed within another enterprise provider’s business strategy.

These past weeks, there has been speculation that HP’s printer business was in final stages of announcing some breakthrough technology directed at 3D printing applications in manufacturing and other uses. If that product comes to market, our speculation is that it will have dependence on HP Enterprise services. How such applications are apportioned under the proposed split is an obvious concern for HP’s current and future customer base.

Finally, in observing other high profile corporate splits, issues of how corporate-wide business shared services, such as procurement, data centers, B2B business network infrastructure and EDI systems, ERP, business and specialized supply chain focused applications, third-party logistics and online customer fulfillment are split out becomes a task of significant proportions. With so many job cuts that have already occurred to-date, and more expected to come, inherent business process knowledge and dedicated internal resources to shepherd the transition workloads are going to be challenging. With speculation of even more strategic changes down the road, the notion of two split companies that can respond faster to changing customer and market needs could be slowed-down by the need for adaptive business systems.

There is obviously more to come regarding the HP business split and we urge readers to stay tuned for further Supply Chain Matters commentaries and updates.

Bob Ferrari

© 2014 The Ferrari Consulting and Research Group LLC and the Supply Chain Matters blog. All rights reserved.


Another Organized Labor Motivated Labor Walkout Involving Amazon in Germany

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On Monday and Tuesday of this week, a work stoppage involving fulfillment center workers at Amazon.com’s German based facilities took place. This was yet another walkout amid a series of periodic work disruptions that date back to 2013. As occurred with other such incidents, there were no reported disruptions in Amazon’s fulfillment activities within the German facilities.

Supply Chain Matters has previously highlighted the various incidents of labor disruptions at Amazon’s German based fulfillment centers. Initial labor stoppages occurred over four consecutive weeks in June of 2013, and again at the peak of the holiday fulfillment season. Another protest walk-off occurred in the spring of this year.

German labor union Verdi has been targeting Amazon and has organized these periodic work stoppages.  The primary issue involves an ongoing dispute as to whether temporary or full-time workers at Amazon’s German facilities should be classified as retail and catalog workers, which garners a higher pay scale in Germany. While Verdi claimed upwards of 2000 workers across five different sites participated in this week’s work stoppage, Amazon indicates the number was closer to 1300. However, the numbers seem to grow with each incident.

Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal published an in-depth front-page article in its United States edition, In Germany, Amazon Keeps Unions at Bay (paid subscription) which provides in-depth perspectives to the issues at-hand. The article is an interesting read.

The WSJ declares that Amazon has shunned Germany’s consensus-driven labor model and largely dictates contract terms at its 9 German distribution centers.  It quotes Amazon’s general manager at the Bad Hersfeld logistics hub as indicating that Verdi and Amazon do not go together. However, later in the article, the authors report that Amazon pays a variable monthly compensation, a bonus based on performance, issuance of restricted stock units, and paid time-off for pregnant workers. A Christmas holiday bonus was added in 2013.

Verdi’s ongoing organizing efforts continue to trigger what is described as a discernable rift among Amazon’s German workforce.  Some workers are thankful to be working for Amazon, while others want their employer to respect Germany’s labor voice practices where workers are formally represented by an organized labor representative in executive forums. The WSJ makes further note that Amazon targeted its German fulfillment center sites within high unemployment areas where workers would be more concerned with jobs rather than labor unions. That apparently adds to the ongoing tensions. What is occurring in within Amazon’s fulfillment facilities in Germany has similar parallels to attempted labor organizing efforts involving Volkswagen’s production facility in Tennessee.

This author is currently half-way through the book, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. It is a fascinating read and provides many insights into the corporate culture and internal drive of Amazon, particularly its successes in challenging conventional norms related to shopping, commerce, fulfillment and business.  Thus, there should be little surprise in Amazon’s current direction in Germany and perhaps other countries. They are, after all, the current big gorilla of Omni-commerce.

After the highly successful and financially rewarding IPO of Alibaba last week, the online fulfillment provider that most believe will at some time surpass the shipment volumes of Amazon and others, one wonders if they will take a similar path when establishing a presence in Europe.

European labor tensions involving online shopping may well continue into the foreseeable future

Bob Ferrari


Lululemon Reported to be Turning the Corner from Previous Supply Chain Snafu

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Supply Chain Matters provides our readers periodic updates to examples of how supply chain snafus can impact business performance. In that light, we have provided ongoing commentaries related to Lululemon Athletica and its prior sourcing and production snafus of one of its most popular line of yoga pants for women.

In March of 2013 this global B2C online and brick and mortar specialty retailer was forced to both recall and stop selling its most popular line of women’s summer yoga pants after discovering that the “sheerness” of the fabric allowed too much to be seen underneath.  The CEO was compelled to publically apologize to customers for the problem and a short time later, announced her desire to step down from her CEO role due to personal reasons. Later in 2013, both a new CEO and Chief Products Officer was brought on-board, unfortunately too late to make any influential impact regarding the 2013 holiday buying period.

The latest business media update for Lululemon reflects a sales recovery with new product designs now becoming attractive for shoppers. Last week, the specialty retailer provided higher-than-expected revenues and profits and raised its outlook for the full year.  Online sales increased 30 percent from the year earlier while sales at physical outlets decreased 5 percent. In its reporting, The Wall Street Journal declared: “a sign that efforts to put supply-chain problems and fashion missteps behind are beginning to deliver results.”  Prospective investors were certainly impressed, sending the stock upwards in double-digits.

To accomplish this turnaround, supplier relationships were augmented and a new line of fashion products was accelerated to provide more online and store shelf assortment in July, a traditional transitional period from summer to fall.  The product line had emphasis other than basic black and gray, which resulted in higher cost and a near 4 basis point erosion in gross margin.

More supply chain challenges remain including upping the assortment of in-demand products that consumers demand as well as further supply chain process improvements. However, the situation seems more of a positive direction.

Our community is often reminded of the both the immediate costs associated with supply chain disruption as well as the longer-term impacts to brand and stock-price.  In the specific case of Lululemon, it has been a span of 18 months of such impacts and learning.  During that time, competitors have managed to seize an opportunity and provide consumers with other attractive and functional choices.

As acknowledged by company management, more work remains and it wilol certainly include a closer relationship of product design and supply chain.

Bob Ferrari


Significant Progress Reported in West Coast Port Labor Contract Talks- No Final Deal As Yet

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Some fitting good news came prior to the Labor Day holiday weekend in the U.S. concerning the ongoing labor negotiations concerning the Pacific Maritime Association, representing numerous west coast ports, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. The existing labor contract involving 29 U.S. west coast ports expired on July 1st.

The Associated Press and other supply chain focused business media report that ongoing talks have made significant progress with a tentative deal reached on the critical knotty issue of healthcare benefits. According to the AP report, the association especially focused on limiting fraud in health plans to avoid penalties that may occur under the Affordable Care Act. The AP report further cites a federal grand jury investigation in California indicting three people for an alleged $50 million scheme to swindle health plans involving dockworkers along with other federal investigations concerning fraud among the subject health plans.

In conformance to negotiation practices, no details have been released concerning specifics to the tentative agreement on the healthcare component. Other remaining issues involve compensation, job security and workplace safety, which imply that contract negotiations will most likely continue for several additional weeks.

Industry and retail focused supply chains have already implement contingency plans including the re-routing of inbound and outbound ocean shipments to U.S. east coast and other North American ports. That activity will likely continue as supply chains move into the critical pre-holiday surge of inbound products from China and other Asia-based producers.


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