As we approach the start of the New Year, B2C and Omni-channel focused supply chains teams can begin to take a much needed breather. While reverse supply chain activities continue to ramp over the remaining days of the calendar year, it’s a good time to reflect on the initial learning from the 2014 holiday surge.

From all the sources Supply Chain Matters has tapped thus far, it would appear that the many weeks of pre-planning have yielded a rather smooth fulfillment period. If there is to a single headline related to the supply chain Grinch of the 2014 season, it remains the very ill-timed west coast port disruption and its impact on multiple other supply chain and logistics fulfillment teams.

A National Retail Federation (NRF) sponsored Holiday Consumer Spending survey released in mid-December indicates that the average holiday shopper had completed nearly 53 percent of shopping activity by mid-month, up from nearly 50 percent reported during this same time period in 2013. The survey pointed to two profiles of shoppers, those who were compelled to act on early, hard to pass up in-store and online promotions, and others waiting to the last minute to wrap-up their shopping. That data is generally what was reported as shopper profiles in 2013. Regarding last-minute shopping, the NRF survey indicated that nearly 34 percent of those last-minute shoppers were planning to buy the last holiday gift before December 18.  For us, that is an indicator that consumers helped in avoiding a last-minute crunch.

Today’s Wall Street Journal cites data from online tracking software developer Shipmatrix indicating that 98 percent of express packages reached their destinations on time by December 24th.  Shipmatrix calculated its reliability metrics from data on the millions of packages tracked for retailers and customers. The 2013 data reflected 90 percent on-time reliability for FedEx and 83 percent for UPS. At this point, we all know how UPS was thrown under the bus in 2013. The added infrastructure investments by both FedEx and UPS in surge capacity and added seasonal workers coupled with a lot of up-front pre-planning with retailers paid off this year. Heavy volume prompted FedEx to continue delivery activities on Christmas day but UPS curtailed on the 24th. Fewer retailers risked last-minute shipping promotions because they faced caps from both package carriers that limited last-minute shipping capacity, and because they headed the warnings.  We suspect the shortage or late arrival of certain inventories had some play in the final on-time results but we will all have to wait for those results to come forward.

We rechecked online sales analytical data tracked by IBM’s Digital Analytics Benchmarking service and it further reinforces that order surges in both November and December were generally in-line with Black Friday, Cyber Monday and pre-holiday surge order volume periods. (See below extracts)  The final peak of online activity in December was between December 15 and 17.

November 2014 Online Sales Source: IBM

 

 Dec_14 Online Sales IBM_475_108

 

 

 

Rather interesting is the chart reflecting average order values among the various weeks.  It reflects average order values of $115-$125 per order with mobile-based ordering reflecting a lower average.

 December 2014 Average Order Value Source: IBM

 

 

 

 

Winter weather across the U.S. cooperated as well, with some minor exceptions. Our own Supply Chain Matters smaller-scale experiments in last-minute online ordering all turned out in on-time delivery. Amazon released a post-holiday summary of its holiday season activity which indicated that nearly 60 percent of its customers shopped using a mobile device and that trend accelerated later into the shopping season.  That is a significant development.

Further, 10 million additional members joined Amazon Prime (free shipping) for the first time. That is yet another indicator of the power of free shipping in hitting the online Place Order button. Among other important supply chain and online fulfillment highlights:

  • Amazon shipped to 185 countries and this holiday, Amazon customers ordered more than 10 times as many items with same-day delivery than in 2013. The last Prime one-day shipping order was placed on December 23 at 2:55pm EST and shipped to Philadelphia PA. The last Prime Now (same day) order was placed on December 24 at 10:24pm and delivered at 11:06pm.  We won’t attempt to comment on the listed contents of that order.
  • Sunday delivery expanded this year.  As noted in our previous commentary, the U.S. Postal Service was the prime recipient.

The Amazon release further includes an extensive listing of holiday best-selling items which is in itself rather interesting. To no surprise, Disney’s Frozen Sparkle Elsa Doll topped the toys category while Disney Kids’ Frozen Anna and Elsa Digital Watches topped that category. What we do for our children and grandchildren! Chromebooks topped the computer category.

While we have not heard from Wal-Mart.com as yet, we anticipate that they had a very good holiday season as well.

For combination brick and mortar and online retailers, 2014 featured more cross-channel fulfillment experimentation including more direct ship from nearest retail store. We anticipate that challenges in distributed order management, inventory pooling and supply chain segmentation may come forth from 2014. Some readers may have noticed some not so flattering packaging, a sure sign of immaturity in pick and pack operations. It will be interesting to note the results of those efforts in the weeks to come when retailers report on their financial and operational results for the quarter.  The open question is whether these efforts add or take-away from profitability.

The learning of the 2014 holiday surge is finally not complete without the ongoing byline of the west coast port disruption and ongoing contract labor talks.  A previous Supply Chain Matters commentary highlighted the impacts among inbound and outbound container activity as well as how carriers like FedEx and UPS rallied to assist in added air capacity and multi-modal re-routing efforts. Even at this point at we close out calendar 2014, the two parties cannot agree as to how much progress is being made in resolving both contract and port productivity issues. The NRF’s latest news release continues to add scathing comments regarding the ongoing situation. We repeat our view that at this point, industry supply chains care less about the full resolution of labor contract renewal talks and more about the implications and learning associated with this series of events.  There will be less tolerance for this magnitude of disruption and one of our 2015 Predictions is to anticipate alternative inbound and outbound container port inter-modal routings in 2015. The difference in financial bottom-lines may well be those supply chain teams that anticipated this disruption ahead of time to be able to initiate alternative planning.

More will go regarding the 2014 peak holiday season and like every other year, the learning will help in planning for the coming years.

Bob Ferrari