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More Indications of Rapidly Changing Global Transportation Trends (Amended)


As we approach the annual peak period of global transportation over the next three months, there are additional troubling signs related to global transportation trends, trends that indicate more excess capacity remaining in ocean and air cargo, but continued restricted capacity within U.S. trucking.

Ocean Container Segment

Drewry Maritime Research recently reported that a the half-way point of 2015, east-west container trade was flat, and that the firm will likely be downgrading its global container traffic forecast for 2015 from 4.3 percent to roughly 2 percent in growth. Drewry pointed to some optimism related to Middle East traffic as a result of the possible lifting of economic sanctions related to Iran, causing the need for increased goods volumes. Keep in mind that many global ocean container carriers were previously forecasting global container volume increases averaging three to four percent, while adding more mega container ships to the global fleet. In August, ocean container carriers were motivated to significantly cut back on scheduling. The Wall Street Journal reported that freight rates at the time between Shanghai and Rotterdam barely covered carrier operating costs, hence the announced cutbacks. The WSJ noted that carriers were significantly reducing capacity to insure higher freight rates, in spite of dramatically reduced fuel costs. During that same period, industry leader Maersk Line revised its estimates of global container volume down to a range of 2-4 percent from the previous 3-5 percent growth estimate and vowed that it would defend and even expand its industry market share position.

The Drewry forecast downgrade comes in midst of the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) Monthly Import Tracker report indication that import cargo volume at the nation’s major retail container ports is expected to increase 1.2 percent this month over the same time last year as retailers head toward the holiday season. The Tracker reported that import volume was up 2.9 percent from June and 8.1 percent from July 2014. The Tracker indicated that inbound container volume for the first-half of 2015 totaled 8.9 million TEU’s, up 6.5 percent over the same period last year. That may be an indicator that retailers elected to position holiday inventories much earlier, given last year’s port disruption. The NRF further reports increased inbound U.S. volumes for September through November, but that number may be skewed by last season’s U.S. West Coast port slowdown. The NRF additionally notes that U.S. retailer inventories are “plentiful’ and that “Shoppers should have no worries about finding what they’re looking for as they begin their holiday shopping.” By our lens, reports noted above are an indication that ocean container volume will indeed level off for the remainder of this year.

Air Cargo Segment

On the air cargo front, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) indicated a decline in air cargo demand in July. IATA reported that disappointing July air freight performance was symptomatic of a broader slowdown in economic growth, most likely caused by a slowdown of activity in China and other Asia based countries. The news comes as passenger airlines continue to add more air freight, as IATA indicates that in July, available air cargo space expanded by 6.7 percent.

IATA’s CEO noted to The Wall Street Journal:

The combination of China’s continued shift towards domestic markets, wider weakness in emerging markets, and slowing global trade indicates that it will continue to be a rough ride for air cargo in the months to come.”

U.S. Trucking

On the U.S. surface trucking front, the American Trucking Associations’ advanced seasonally adjusted For-Hire Truck Tonnage Index decreased 0.5% in June, following a revised gain of 0.8% during May. The soft June volume number was attributed to flat factory output and falling retail sales. However, the June, the index equaled 131.1 (2000=100) somewhat below the all-time high of 135.8 that was reached in January of this year. During the second quarter, the index fell 1.7% from the first quarter but increased 2% from the same quarter in 2014.

The ATA recently extended its U.S. Freight Transportation Forecast to the year 2026. The report forecasts a 28.6 percent increase in freight tonnage and an increase in freight revenues of 74.5 percent by 2026. However, the not so good news for industry shippers is a forecast indicating that the number of Class 8 trucks in use will grow from 3.56 million in 2015 to mere 3.98 million by 2026. That current demand-supply imbalance does not bode well for trucking cost projections. Factor the current building wave of acquisition activity among non-asset and asset based transportation and logistics providers and the picture becomes far more troublesome for industry supply chains that do not plan accordingly.

U.S. Railroads

How different can the clock speed of industry business change occur- consider the current plight of the U.S. railroad industry. Last year, the industry was booming, and was strategically placed to take advantage of the explosion of new oil exploration methods occurring throughout North America. Crude transport by rail was the new phenomenon that restored profits and expansion for U.S. railroads.

The continued plunging global based cost of crude oil and sudden glut affecting global commodity needs has changed that dynamic dramatically.

Union Pacific, a major U.S. railroad recently disclosed that 2300 workers are currently on temporary layoff or alternative work status as that railroad initiated efforts to adjust its current cost structure toward lower transport demand needs. UP’s shipping volumes are down 4 percent year-to-date with reported declines in chemical, agricultural and industrial goods segments. Industry rival, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) is now part of Berkshire Hathaway, and it may be some time before similar news leaks out regarding the effects of the declines in crude-by-rail shipments.

Reports concerning other U.S. railroads indicate similar trends with hundreds of idle tank cars now parked and idle after recently being utilized to transport dedicated crude-by-rail trains. Railroads are now reportedly pushing-back on end-of-year regulatory mandates regarding positive-train control and tank car safety upgrade initiatives. The U.S. rail industry now has a capacity imbalance related to commodity transport, the bread and butter of volume and profits.

Future Prospects

Thus, as we approach that last three months of 2015, different capacity dynamics across global transportation lead to a similar impact and concern that being far more turbulence in global transportation circles in the months to come. Rest assured, these different imbalance situations will be included in our 2016 predictions for industry and global supply chains.

We want to hear from our readers on these trends. Is your organization currently concerned and is your organization actively planning contingency scenario? You can email your comments and feedback to: feedback <at> supply-chain-matters <dot> com.

Bob Ferrari


The Renaissance of Available-to-Promise Capability to Support Retail and Online Omni-Channel Fulfillment

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Supply Chin Matters has featured prior commentaries exploring the supply chain impacts of Omni-channel and online customer fulfillment for retail supply chains. Such impacts are many, but one of the more important relates to the needs for efficient overall inventory management while exceeding more demanding customer fulfillment and satisfaction needs.

In B2C retail, and in online B2B, inventory investment has a major impact on margin and profitability, and Omni-channel strategies that allow customers different fulfillment options can cause havoc with the proper balance of inventory.

Consumers increasingly prefer to buy online, and at the same time, seek flexibility to either have their orders ship direct, or pick-up or return in a local retail store or outlet. This new paradigm is why so many Omni-channel retailers are seriously re-visiting inventory management strategies. Some are building dedicated online customer fulfillment centers to directly support online order volumes while allocating separate inventory to support brick and mortar retail needs. Other Omni-channel retailers have rightfully determined that the same inventory has to be efficiently managed to support fulfillment needs across all channels. This changes the role of the brick and mortar store to be an added node within the fulfillment network with the ability to support in-store pick and pack.

Within this increased retail business challenge, available-to-promise capability (ATP) has taken on a new significance as a key capability to assist in more efficient and responsive inventory management. As Supply Chain Matters sponsor JDA Software describes it, ATP is experiencing a new renaissance.

Last week, The Wall Street Journal provided further evidence of the business importance of efficient inventory management. In the article, Retailers See Gains in Serving E-Commerce Supply Chains (Paid subscription or free metered view), the WSJ reports that while retailers view online shopping as a boon to sales, it can provide a drag on profits especially in the light of parallel delivery networks. Some retailers, however, may be on the way toward figuring out the logistics and profitability potential of Omni-channel. Examples cited was that Home Depot which grew online sales 25 percent in the second quarter while improving overall logistics, including higher efficiencies in its distribution network. Target, grew online sales 30 percent and reported a small increase in margins.

Last week, Supply Chain Matters contrasted the financial results and supply chain strategies of Wal-Mart and Target. Wal-Mart’s financial results were perceived by Wall Street as disappointing. To address Omni-channel, the global retailer is currently implementing a new inventory management system. That strategy includes shifting inventory to regional and dedicated customer fulfillment centers, rather than from the retail store backrooms. That would allow the flexibility to meet both online and in-store demand from a distribution center centric inventory strategy. The downside is a de-emphasis of the retail store as a fulfillment node and a greater potential for stock-outs at retail store locations as online orders consume available inventory.

Target on the other hand, has recently demonstrated improving financial results, but at the same time has been candid to Wall Street that balancing inventory across its network and leveraging resources at store level are an integral part of strategy. Senior management candidly admitted that in-stocks within physical stores have been unacceptable so far this year, but a newly appointed role of Chief Operations Officer will have as an initial priority, beefing up the capabilities and responsiveness of the supply chain. Target’s strategy includes the retail store as a direct fulfillment node. Thus far the retailer’s is shipping online orders direct from 140 stores with plans to enable 450 ship-from locations by the end of this year. Target senior management further noted that an important enablement of ship-from-store will be will be testing and deployment of a new ATP system that provides specific online customer delivery commitments.

On JDA Software’s Supply Chain Nation blog, Kelly Thomas writes on the renaissance of: Order Promising and Demand Shaping in a Segmented, Omni-Channel World. Thomas observes that ATP married with demand shaping provides an increasing number of fulfillment options as well a means to determine profitability profiles for fulfillment channels. It provides a basis in making the most informed decision on the source of inventory for a given customer order line and the pick-up or delivery location of the online customer.

Rightfully noted is that nearly 20 years ago, elements of what is today JDA Software (i2 Technologies) pioneered and patented allocated-driven ATP functionality for discrete manufacturing and other industry supply chain environments. Today’s JDA Order Promiser application is now being applied to the evolving needs of Omni-channel retailers for facilitating more responsive online fulfillment as well as improved inventory investment and bottom-line profitability.

The technology has come a long way and has found new meaning in more efficiently managing inventory in a B2C and B2B Omni-channel world.

Bob Ferrari

Disclosure: JDA Software is one of other current sponsors of the Supply Chain Matters blog.

Apple’s June-Ending Quarterly Performance: Disappointment or Supply Chain Praise?

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Yesterday, after the stock market closed, Apple announced its fiscal third quarter financial performance and Wall Street’s headline was immediately one of disappointment. This was despite reporting that profits had surged 38 percent from the year earlier period along with total revenues that grew 33 percent. Gross margin was reported as a whopping 39.7 percent which is extraordinary for the majority of today’s consumer electronics providers. Yet within minutes of the earnings report, Apple’s Apple Logoshares plunged 7 percent in after-hours trading and today, dropped as low as 21 points before a small rebound.

What the investment community is primarily concerned with is a perception that Apple is trending toward a one-product company, that being the iPhone, which with the latest results, accounts for 63 percent of Apple’s overall sales. That is a ten percentage point increase from a year ago, prompting concerns that other products such as the iPad are declining in sales, while new products such as the Apple Watch have yet to provide an offset. Unit sales of the iPad are believed to have declined 18 percent in the latest quarter, making a sixth consecutive quarter of year-over-year declines.  Once more, the previously touted partnership among Apple and IBM, designed to provide more business applications leveraging the Apple tablet, do not appear to be stemming the declining trend.

In the fiscal third quarter, while Apple reported shipping 47.5 million iPhones, an increase of 35 percent from the year earlier quarter, that number was 23 percent lower than shipped units reported for fiscal Q2. According to a report by The Wall Street Journal, analysts noted previous quarter-on-quarter iPhone volumes fell by 19 percent and 17 percent respectively, and remain concerned for a steeper rate of decline. Apple attributed unit shortfall to the lowering overall inventory by 600,000 units during the quarter. Fiscal Q3 has traditionally been Apple’s slowest volume quarter.

In an interview with the WSJ, CEO Tim Cook indicated that he refuses to accept the thinking that Apple cannot sustain its existing growth rates. He further indicated that Apple has pried open the door to untapped markets such as China, and that the company is sensing a larger conversion rate from Android powered devices to iPhone.

Apple did not provide any breakdown of Apple Watch performance but CEO Cook indicated to analysts that the “sell-through” of the Watch was better than the iPad and iPhone at their product introduction phases. We will have to wait and observe what that means over the next two critical quarters.

From our supply chain lens, the upcoming quarters will provide Apple’s planning teams with added challenges.  Earlier this month, we highlighted that Apple is now actively planning the ramp-up of the planned next release of iPhone. Reports indicate that the company is  requesting suppliers to support between 85 million and 95 million iPhones for the all-important end-of-year holiday buying season that ends at the end of December, This is despite anticipated modest hardware changes.

Planners are obviously reducing existing model inventories but must be diligent to not impact Apple fiscal Q4 results. With expectations for increased sales of the Watch, as well as a newly introduced iPod Nano, additional effort will be focused on ramp-up production milestones.  An added challenge has got to be focused on what to plan for inventory and fulfillment needs for the iPad, given that there may well be a product change coming.

And then there is that mega “elephant in the room”, what to do with $200 plus billion in cash.

The adage for Apple’s and indeed many other global supply chain teams is often, not what you did yesterday, but what are you going to do tomorrow, next month, and next quarter.

Does that resonate?

Bob Ferrari

Do Not Let Your Firm be the Headline for a Supply Chain Systems Failure

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As our U.S. based readers are likely aware, Wednesday of this week was not necessarily a good day for the IT community. In the course of a few hours Wednesday morning, mission critical systems of the New York Stock Exchange, United Airlines and The Wall Street Journal failed, and respective customers were not pleased.

With the cascading breaking headlines on Wednesday, just about everyone’s initial impression was that this was some form of a coordinated cyber-attack.  After quick investigations from various federal agencies, that premise was later negated.

Since Wednesday, the NYSE communicated to its brokerage customers that the outage was likely caused by a planned software upgrade that was underway. The outage resulted in a four hour outage, but remarkably, had little impact on the exchange of stocks because ancillary systems took on the task of transacting trades. According to a report in today’s WSJ, the problem started with a new software program designed to more precisely time-stamp data that was installed during the prior evening.

The WSJ outage was reportedly caused by a volume surge that overwhelmed the publication’s home page. It remains unclear, at this point, as to why the volume surge occurred.

The United Airlines outage, which extended upwards of 90 minutes, causing the cancellation of 60 flights and consequent delays to hundreds of U.S. based flights, was attributed its outage to a failed router in its computer network. As anyone who has flown lately can attest, airlines like United have cut back on airport customer service agents. Thus, system-wide interruptions cause significant passenger disruption, particularly when backup planning is inconsistent. Given United’s continual history of computer failures, schedule interruptions and poor customer service, the Wednesday incident was yet another source of continuous disappointment from United’s long-standing customers. (This author is included in that category).

As a supply chain community who deal with business and mission-critical systems each and every day, Wednesday’s litany of IT incidents provide us poignant reminders.  The first and obvious reminder for IT teams themselves is that no mission-critical system should have a single-point of failure.  While that appears to a simple statement, the existence and complexity of global-wide outsourced systems and/or networks has added new vulnerabilities which must be communicated and addressed.  There is the further theme of complex software upgrades that can precipitate outages.  It is no wonder that IT and business functional teams remain very concerned about the potential risks of complex ERP or supply chain business critical system and applications upgrades.

For functional supply chain and line of business team leaders, the prime takeaway is twofold. First, listen to your IT support teams when they raise concerns regarding system vulnerabilities or needs to invest in IT redundancy in specific business critical systems.  Too often, functional business and supply chain teams become too impatient with planned system maintenance downtime or extra time needed to complete a planned software upgrade.  Better to invest that energy in preparing consistent contingency back-up plans. Insure that there are plans associated with each and every business critical system. Take the time to thank and reward both IT and functional teams for their diligence in planning.

A final message relates to senior executive leaders and their zest for cost control. A theme surrounding Wednesday’s concurrent outages is that larger and more complicated business critical systems require adequate resources to support testing, monitoring and reliability. That includes not only adequate defenses to guard against hacking and cyber-attacks but day-to-day operations as well.

Many years ago, I worked for a very insightful CIO who mastered communications to senior executive management. Often, when he received pressure regarding systems maintenance budgets associated with mission critical business systems such as order fulfillment, he would use an analogy of flying on a jet aircraft.  “Do you expect the pilots to upgrade or change an engine while flying at 30,000 feet.” Of course not, and that is why diligent and timely maintenance and backup plans exist.

Don’t let your firm be the next headline for a supply chain systems failure.

Bob Ferrari

The Implications of Wal-Mart’s Broader Fees on Suppliers

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In order to boost relatively flat revenue growth among its U.S. physical retail outlets, Wal-Mart recently raised salary levels for its respective U.S. retail associates to improve customer service and responsiveness. The retailer further continues to invest heavily in Wal_Mart Storeits online fulfillment channel.  All of these actions provide adding pressure on margins.

In April, Supply Chain Matters echoed business media reports indicating that this global retailer was ratcheting up pressures on its suppliers to squeeze costs. Earlier this month, Reuters reported and somewhat validated a significant effort to offset increasing costs, namely imposing added charges among most all of Wal-Mart suppliers.  Supply Chain Matters is of the belief that this effort will have added implications for both parties.

According to the report, added fees will relate to warehousing inventory along with amended payment terms, affecting upwards of 10,000 U.S. suppliers. In one cited example, Reuters indicates that a food supplier would supposedly be charged 10 percent of the value of inventory shipped to new stores or warehouses, along with one percent to hold inventory in existing Wal-Mart warehouses. It reportedly was not clear if the one-time charges apply only to the initial shipment or would cover a specific period of time. A Wal-Mart spokesperson indicated to Reuters that these fees were a means for sharing costs of growth and keeping consumer prices low.

In our April commentary, we observed that these appear to be signs of yet another wave of supplier squeeze tactics in order to improve a retailer or manufacturer’s overall margins. While these actions are not new for Wal-Mart, their application to a far broader population of suppliers is noteworthy. Such efforts that add to the cost burden of doing business with a retailer are bound to provide setbacks in efforts towards deeper collaboration and supplier product innovation. Consider that Wal-Mart continues with the construction and opening of new online fulfillment centers to support is fulfillment needs. The addition of supplier inventory fees to stock these new centers may cause some suppliers to consider alternative inventory stocking strategies of their own, that balance the needs of Wal-Mart with other retailers such as Amazon, Target or Costco. Indeed, unilateral efforts directed at transferring the cost burden among suppliers can often lead to counter-productive consequences, particularly during seasonal buying surge periods such as the holiday season.

Suppliers can take advantage of the same fulfillment decision-support technology as retailers, namely to determine the profitability potential for each major customer, and providing preferential service for customers that financially support needs for added responsiveness and fulfillment collaboration.

Too often, it seems that these mandates are handed down by the most senior management responding to investor pressures for more short-term profitability and margin growth.  These efforts cascade from retailers and manufacturers, to first tier suppliers, and throughout other tiers of the supply chain. It’s unfortunate that there supply chain teams are rewarded more for enforcement of such actions as opposed to efforts directed at joint supplier process and product innovation.

Bob Ferrari


Moving Beyond Key Performance Indicators


In our prior Supply Chain Matters posting we called attention to the evolving attraction for leveraging predictive analytics in supply chain decision-making practices which has added to the continued pent-up demand for data scientists. We highlighted a guest contribution indicating that big data and more predictive analytics capabilities can be non-effective if not preceded by a rigorous review in determining if current key performance indicators (KPI’s) and business metrics are actually capturing the true drivers of business outcomes.

During SAP’s recent 2015 Sapphire and ASUG conference, SAP co-founder and Supervisory Board Chairmen Hasso Plattner’s conference keynote touched upon this very aspect, which warrants repeating. He touched upon the notion of the boardroom of the future, not being occupied by reviewing historically based KPI’s but rather “fact-based management.” Hasso described this as a “massive change on how companies manage information” and further, “we cannot hide data anymore”.

That last statement may well resonate with our readers since too often, KPI’s are selected to measure can-do performance areas tied to individual organizational, team and personal bonuses that do not necessarily link to an overall business outcome required for products, processes, margins and/or risks. They are too- often, anchored in past performance coupled to a consensus of what can be comfortably accomplished vs. what should be expected given the industry and business environment.  Concerning or bad news can be hidden until it is too late for the business to overcome the effects.

In his keynote, Hasso addressed such a change as “moving from dashboards to active boards.” That is an important and far different metaphor.

It implies continuous and changing analysis grounded in overall outcomes and assumes that business events will indeed be constantly changing and that performance metrics should set both a target and a constant moving analysis of potential outcomes based on various business and product scenarios. Such a moving analysis assumes that organizations and teams can be fluid and flexible, responding to market opportunities, threats or risks in a more proactive and collective manner and in the context of best desired outcomes. It further implies that management is very actively engaged in understanding how the end-to-end supply chain is contributing or detracting from desired and/or expected outcomes. Bonuses and performance are tied to best enterprise outcomes vs. individual outcomes.

Such a change does not occur overnight and will take time to evolve. As noted in a previous commentary, executives need to be granted the broadest end-to-end supply chain leadership and accountability with certain mandates to address existing value-chain challenges and to improve business outcomes. Supporting staff with data science skills, while critical, are not the primary skill need.  Knowledge of the business, the end-to-end supply chain, and organizational change management needs to be coupled to data science skills.

In the meantime, we advise supply chain leaders to indeed recruit talent with data science skills, and then rotate these new superstars among various supply chain functional and geographic assignments.  Challenge them with local problems and with introducing positive overall change. Insure active mentorship and sponsorship with the end goal being a select group of business analysts that can take on the most difficult challenges while garnering the respect of others.

Bob Ferrari

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