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Post COVID-19 lessons learned: retail supply chain success depends on adaptability to anything

The pandemic has shown us that adaptability is key to overcome disruption. Derek Curtis elaborates on the learnings for the supply chain from these special circumstances.

If there’s one overall post-pandemic lesson to be learned by supply chains, it’s this: They must have the ability to pivot quickly – not only as it relates to what they do but where and how they do it.

The COVID-19 crisis presented unprecedented challenge to global supply chains as rapidly evolving customer demand and expectations met strained resources and manual tasks. At the same time, warehouses were under increased pressure to maintain efficiency regardless of outside factors and sudden changes in shopping behavior.

To be sure, survival in a post-pandemic world depends upon reacting and being adaptable to unforeseen circumstance. And being prepared for absolutely anything. Reducing stockouts. Offering new package sizes. Switching from a business-to-business (B2B) to business-to-consumer (B2C) model, even if temporarily.

Without the right supply chain systems in place, whether technology, processes or infrastructure, you’ll struggle to compete and to survive. Let’s explore this concept.

Be ready for the unexpected

Supply chains should be prepared for the unforeseen, including disruption brought on by any type of disaster that could strike at any time – pandemic, Mother Nature, cybersecurity breach, who knows? And they must be prepared for and able to adapt to changing customer expectations.

To meet consumer need and keep business moving forward, many companies turned to e-commerce, which reached an all-time high during the COVID-19 crisis. Literally, hundreds of thousands of consumers embraced online grocery order and delivery, for example. I experienced this first-hand. My wife, like countless shoppers, embraced this channel and relied on our groceries being delivered by a certain time of the day. And when that didn’t happen – she was disappointed that her order wasn’t fulfilled in the agreed-upon timeframe – she could have easily taken her business elsewhere.

Lesson learned: Customers expect near-perfection and an incredible performance out of the supply chain, even during times of disruption. Companies that adapt to and can meet heightened expectations are more likely to succeed.

Circumstance doesn’t necessarily define you

Körber customers that did well throughout the pandemic – even benefitted from it – were those that pivoted quickly, even in the face of adversity. Let’s take a closer look at two coffee manufacturers and distributors —both of whom successfully changed their business model during the pandemic.

The first use case is a company supplying large, industrial-sized bags of coffee to restaurants. At the onset of COVID-19, its bread-and-butter market almost disappeared. Rather than wave the white flag and shut down, our customer pivoted and quickly built a B2C model. It stood up a consumer-facing website and sold its coffee in smaller packages, like 1-pound or 5-pound bags. Not only did the organization survive the crisis, but it created a new market to sell and ship to – other than restaurants.

The second customer sold coffee directly to consumers before the pandemic and because of this, found all of its customers suddenly homebound. This manufacturer wasn’t searching for customers. Instead, it was trying to look for better ways to meet increased demand. Not only did the company increase production but also offered larger packages of coffee for consumers who wanted to minimize their grocery store trips to get their caffeine fix.

Lesson learned: Körber customers with two distinct customer bases pivoted and benefited from circumstance. One could have been considered a circumstantial winner and the other left on the sidelines because restaurants were its primary customers. Both, however, had the supply chain technology, processes, and infrastructure in place to survive and thrive.

Not all changes to supply & demand will stay

Depending on where you live, 18 months ago you might have faced empty toilet paper and paper towel aisles – the bullwhip effect in which growing customer demand directly impacted inventory. The same could have been true if you were searching for hand sanitizer or canisters of sanitizing wipes.

The thing is, some of these consumer demands were temporary while some could stay for quite a while. The need to stockpile toilet paper was temporary. However, the heightened demand for things like hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes is likely permanent.

Lesson learned: Some much-sought-after items during the beginning of the pandemic were temporary while others will be around for the long haul.

Be prepared for ongoing change

At the end of the day, the pandemic permanently altered the way many consumers shop, forcing companies to change their supply chains to conduct business and survive. There were circumstantial winners – like producers of face masks and hand sanitizers. There were those who needed to quickly pivot to expand their customer base, even temporarily – like companies that supplied goods to restaurants, many of which temporarily or permanently closed.

But circumstance does not necessarily define the outcome. Those with the ability to adapt and pivot were winners not only during the pandemic but going forward as well. Being able to pivot from a nearly disastrous situation to a positive one is doable with the right technology, process and infrastructure. Similarly, the ability to start with a good situation to secure an even larger market share is doable with the same three things – the right supply chain technology, process and infrastructure.

So, regardless of what’s coming down the supply chain pipe, make sure you can react, pivot and adapt. Doing so just might open your company up to brand customers, lines of business and revenue streams, too. Ready to learn how technology can help? Take a look at how others in the retail industry have benefited from automation.

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