In the latest webinar from RIS News, “Solving a Supply Chain in Crisis,” retail experts George Lawrie from Forrester and Maninder Singh from Tech Mahindra tackle gaps and opportunities in retail supply chains, and how businesses can optimize fulfillment to improve profit margins.
Tim Denman: Welcome everyone to the “Solving a Supply Chain in Crisis” webinar, which is hosted by RIS News and presented in partnership with Tech Mahindra. I'm Tim Denman, editor in chief of RIS. Thank you for joining us today.
While retailers have rebounded from the historic disruption brought on by the health crisis, ongoing supply chain woes have placed a major roadblock on the path to full recovery. Uncontrollable supply chain issues — port congestion, labor shortages, for example — coupled with inefficient operational approaches and technologies have highlighted how fragile the retail supply chain is and sparked IT investment across the industry.
With us to explore the current state of the retail supply chain, as well as the strategies and technologies retailers should be investing in to ensure they're able to meet changing consumer demand are George Lawrie from Forrester, Maninder Singh from Tech Mahindra, and our moderator for today and the author of our annual Supply Chain Retail Tech Study, which serves as the backdrop of today’s discussion, is RIS' own Joe Skorupa.
Gentlemen, thank you for joining us. George and Maninder, can you introduce yourselves and describe your role at your respective companies?
George Lawrie: Thanks, I'm George Lawrie, one of the analysts at Forrester Research. Forrester is a global company providing data and advisory around changes in technology and markets. As you can imagine, we're quite busy right now. My specific role is to look at the supply chain, so I'm busier than most.
Maninder Singh: I’m Maninder Singh. I run the retail and CPG business for Tech Mahindra in the Americas. Happy to be part of this webinar on something that is very relevant, specifically for the retail industry. Tech Mahindra sits at the intersection of information technology, business processes, and infrastructure. We've been in the business for more than 20 years now, and I’m looking forward to sharing some of our experiences in how we are helping our clients across the supply chain.
Denman: Great to have everyone here. Joe, we're not trying to slight you, but you need no introduction to this audience. Many of the themes and topics we're going to discuss today were covered in our annual “Supply Chain Technology Study.” We're going to explore some of the key findings from the report, but if anyone wants to dive deeper into the results, the report can be found on RISNews.com under “Research & Reports.” There's also a direct link to the report available here.
Joe will go through some of the key findings of the report, and George will provide some related findings from recent Forrester research he's conducted. After Joe and George deliver a high-level look at the current state of the supply chain, the panel will engage in a round table discussion. Joe, take it away.
Joe Skorupa: Thanks, Tim. It's a pleasure to be here today with George and Maninder. In quick summary, strong consumer demand has been outpacing supply chain capacity throughout 2021 and for shoppers, this is a big deal because it has meant that product shortages and excessive lead times for ordering has been plaguing your lives. For retailers, it's been a huge deal, too, a big problem because it's exacerbated by a tight labor market and rising costs of shipping. It's a perfect storm.
It's very timely that the RIS News “Supply Chain Technology Study” set out to benchmark the state of the retail supply chain and identify technologies that are key to success. With this we can make recommendations so that retailers can build a supply chain of the future that ensures resiliency in the face of this disruption and also future disruptions.
Now, one big irony for retailers in all of this is that until the national health crisis struck in 2020, the supply chain had been doing quite well — steadily getting faster, steadily getting smarter, and steadily getting more efficient. It had even begun to adapt, at the start of the pandemic, to the sharp increase in e-commerce and contactless procedures that needed to go into place. It was adding automation and micro-fulfillment and doing good things. However, one thing had not changed. It had not improved its ability to predict demand signals quickly enough to respond to unexpected surges and big shifts in shopper behavior, and that's exactly what occurred.
Let's look at the top three obstacles that we identified in the study. It's a fair question to ask, would any disaster recovery plan have successfully met this perfect storm of bottlenecks in ports, trucker shortages, containers in the wrong places, labor shortages, and lack of warehouse space, to name a few?
Well, the answer is probably not. I'm going to look to Maninder and George to offer some ideas as we go through for ways to reduce that impact and adjust as quickly as possible. That clearly hasn't been done. Now, specific steps could have been taken to reduce some of the challenges and, specifically, when we asked retailers what those obstacles were to making that reaction — that would make a difference for them and their customers — they identified three big obstacles:
- Lack of real-time visibility to find out about fast moving problems. Right now, they're finding out when it's too late to actually do something.
- Labor and skills shortages that require major adjustments by HR. That is something that's not been ramped up until recently they ramped that up.
- Inability to indentify fluctuations in demand fast enough to avoid a cascade of problems. Once something goes wrong, that rapidly spreads throughout the organization.
What all three of these obstacles have in mind is searching for a way to close gaps and fill in spots that lead to supply chain distortions in inventory. George, can we get your take on what steps and insights you have from the research you've done?
Lawrie: Interestingly, we ran this a bit earlier this year with our panel of businesses and asked them about the focus of their digital transformation. The interesting thing is that the supply chain here is a bit higher than it would've been, perhaps, last year. If we ran this again, it'd be right at the top now. What was it that they were thinking about? Supply chains had been working fine in a just-in-time way. People had been getting complacent about it.
What people are thinking about now is how do we make it more resilient, more sustainable? Perhaps that means we need to start managing the bottlenecks and protect them with a bit of extra inventory. We talk to people about just-in-time inventory, just-in-case, and just-right inventory, which protects your bottlenecks. We'll drill down more on this data in a bit.
Skorupa: Bottlenecks are a good way to discover when you're undergoing a stress test, and clearly the retail supply chain has undergone a stress test. In the RIS study, we asked retailers to tell us which specific strategies they were pursuing in 2021. We were gathering these data points a couple of months ago, and obviously things have moved pretty quickly. But we were able, at that time, to get a look at their 2021 plans, which are now coming to an end. If you look at the 2021, these were immediate steps that needed to be taken because immediate steps had to be taken. That supply chain was broken for many product categories — still is for some — and retailers had to do something.
At the top of the list for immediate strategies in the 2021 portion, we see fulfillment in two different ways. One is to optimize fulfillment to improve margins. Obviously, the costs were skyrocketing and margins had to be protected and preserved. This was chosen by a majority of respondents, 62%. The other is expanding local fulfillment and micro-fulfillment capabilities, and that was chosen by 57%
When we expand the horizon line and look out into 2022, which is now here, you get a bit more space to focus on structural shifts. Here, retailers want to diversify their supply base; they feel locked into agreements. They feel locked into a minimum of options, and realize that they have to expand their supplier base if they're going to be able to adjust quickly when distortions occur. This was chosen by 44%, almost a majority.
In the next cohort we see in this 2022 list, improving the ability to leverage shopper behavior data to improve demand forecasting, and digital transformation to move forward with real-time visibility. Both of these tied at 39%. They're all longer-term projects. They're not going to be solved with a quick implementation, therefore this strategy will take several steps to resolve in 2022.
George, can you talk more about that data pain on the supply chain here?
Lawrie: One of the things that we found — this data is from last year — but we found already that companies had spent very heavily on their front-end. They spent on e-commerce and were actually ready for the e-commerce uplift. What they hadn't done was repair the supply chain for that unexpected rise in demand. They were already starting to prioritize what they thought of as a supply chain, but what they found was that trying to react to this demand, rather than to anticipate it or predict it, actually failed. Despite the fact that they'd started to spend more last year or had planned to spend more, they hadn't planned to spend it in the right way. Several of our clients said, "We found that demand could change much faster than the supply."
To your point, Joe, about the alternate suppliers and alternate capacity, almost every single one of our clients had them. What they didn't have was any alert that said, "Okay, now we need to switch to them," and they hadn't tested them. Although they'd started to think about it last year, what they've learned this year is that you need to have it tested and have a series of event feeds that tell you, "Now's the time when we need to switch. Now our demand forecasting model doesn't work. We need to do something else."
Skorupa: Our study looked at supply chain spending as an overall portion of the tech budget. The figure we came up with, based on the average for all the respondents in this study, was devoting 30% of the tech budget to supply chain. That'll be different for every organization, but that's the average figure. Retail should look at their supply chain. How much are they spending on technology, on third-party services, on salaries? If it's in that 30% range, then it's probably a way for them to meet what peers are spending. That was a good point about spending on technology and supply chain.
We look at emerging technologies. Looking at emerging technologies is something that we consider a non-mainstream technology trend in the industry. For example, we have No. 1 here: looking at partnering with home delivery services. Well, guess what? That's been around a long time, but do the majority of retailers partner with home delivery services? The answer is no. That means it's still picking up speed and spreading across the main stream of retailers. That came out No. 1 here. You're going to see the numbers on the low side because, again, this is not mainstream technology that every retailer believes they have to have in their war chest of capabilities. Thirty two percent is actually quite high, and that's probably because home delivery service has been around for a while.
No. 2 on that list is micro-fulfillment centers. Again, that's been around for a few years, but not every retailer had, as a matter of fact, a minority of retailers have micro-fulfillment centers. It's still in the emerging category because a minority of retailers have developed that capability. That’s high at 27% for something that's only been picking up speed for the last few years. However, if you think about emerging technologies and future-forward technologies, the next group there fits that bill. There's significant levels of interest by retailers in robotic automation for picking and packing, and that's at 20%, or drones, but probably it's more likely self-driving.
Customer delivery: that's pretty high for an emerging technology at 16%. Robots or computer vision also come in at 16%, but specifically for shelf stock monitoring in the stores. Again, 16% is a minority of retailers, but nevertheless that's interesting, and that type of thing will likely grow over the years. The final thing on the list is dark stores at 16%, also appearing on the emerging tech list
I’d like to point out that retailers have a lot of immediate concerns. The supply chain, in some places, needs immediate addressing. Why jump into experimentation? Retailers have to pay attention to new solutions and emerging solutions because all the things that they have now, got them into the place they're in now. These may be elements where they can provide solutions to fill in some gaps, the blind spots, and make their supply chains be able to flex better when the next disruption occurs.
Speaking of disruptions, this next slide was a big shocker. I don't know if labor and workforce issues have ever emerged in a study I've done over the last 20 years, as the No. 1 issue of concern. I cannot recall that ever happening. Yet, this turns out to be one of the biggest findings in the study: the host of labor issues has been elevated to a sense of high urgency for retailers. This question was quite open-ended, including social issues, political issues, environmental issues, but the biggest and largest responses by retailers ended up in the workforce and labor concerns area.
Heading the list is health and safety of workers, which was chosen by a huge number: 76% of retailers; employee retention came in second, chosen by 71%. Third was education and training. All of these concerns were identified as being very high in importance, which is the way the question was asked, by a majority of retailers. In most cases, a vast majority of retailers selected very high importance.
Lawrie: In the United States in September, something like 3% of the workforce resigned. People call it “The Great Resignation,” but it was much worse in retail than in hospitality. We dug into this a little bit to find out why. We found out that it had to do with productivity and wages — these people are not well-paid. They're amongst the lowest paid people, but their productivity or the value that they add is also quite low because they're not well-equipped with technology or well-prioritized in what they do. Progressive retailers are thinking about this, particularly in the supply chain and saying, where are we wasting people? What can we do to make them more valuable and pay them more?
For example, case in point: one of our clients had very laborious pricing processes. They had hundreds of analysts doing spreadsheet work on prices. They automated that with AI that helped to automate and react more quickly to prices. They took those people off and had them do more value-added work, in this case, looking for alternate suppliers because they were unable to get the supplies they'd previously been getting during the crisis. The real point about the labor shortage is about raising productivity and raising what you pay them so that they're willing to come and work.
Skorupa: I want to switch over to the Top 10 Key Findings and Recommendations. This is a summary of the findings, I do want to urge all of you today to please read the study. You're just getting a few of the highlights — certainly no more than one-quarter to one-third of the charts, findings, and data points. This looks at the top findings in a way that provides a recommendation.
Let me start with real-time inventory visibility. The point of that is it's actually a first step. If you have visibility, that's great. Now you know where your problems are, but what can you do about it? It's really a first step, but if you don't have that first step, you can't take the second step and resolve issues.
I do want to point out No. 3, which is to devote 30% of your tech budget to supply chain. By that, look around at your peers, what are your peers doing? Have you been under-investing? You may have to go above that 30% average. If you want to be a leader in a field, you may want to go above that 30% average.
If you have done consistent investments and you are a leader in the field, maybe it's time for you to focus on something else, and keep that level the same, or move it down a notch and focus on something else. It's going to be different for everyone else. The average throughout the industry is 30% for all the costs associated with the supply chain.
I’ll also highlight No. 4, distributed order management or order synchronization. The key here is that it should happen in an instant. You may have a person in Boston looking at a black dress in a specific store and a person in Miami online, looking at that same black dress and thinking about ordering it. If you don't have instant, distributed order management, you may end up having both people buy that same dress at the same time, or at a time when there's latency in reporting, and that's going to cause a cascade of problems that's going to flow through the organization, so that's a huge recommendation there.
No. 6, micro-fulfillment has popped up in several places throughout our study. It's a great way for retailers to cut down on shipping costs. It's a great way for retailers to improve and increase the speed that they have for shipping, get it more local, and get it near the neighborhoods, cities, and towns where your primary customers are located.
It's impossible not to note No. 8 — fulfillment in every possible category scored a high level of interest and urgency in the supply chain study.
The final thing is No. 9, the labor issues. There was a comment from one of the retailer attendees, who said, "I can't believe that the number of retailers isn't 100%, who would have thought that worker workforce and labor issues aren't at the top of the list." Even if you get 76% saying it's at the top of the list, we have retailers who say 100% it's at the top of the list.
These are our 10 recommendations. I highlighted a few key ones, but I urge you to look at all of these and read the report to get all the details.
Lawrie: Thanks, Joe. This is a survey that we conducted with 600 executives. We asked them to rank different supply chain technologies, according to business value impact and maturity. The ones that were highest on both are in the investment sector. You can see that it's all about demand, it's all about anticipating demand.
Thinking back to Joe's example of the black dresses, I wanted to share an example where one of our clients is in fashion apparel. One of the things they do is leverage online. They don't know where the black dresses are going to take off, so they put online an initial order, which doesn't have all the colors or sizes, but from the response to that they know how to structure the reorder — what colors, sizes, and more importantly, which locations they should hold them to fulfill. The point is applying some AI, applying some science to that, they're able to solve all of those problems.
That's why demand management and demand signals are perhaps the most important thing. In this case, they're looking at the traffic on the e-commerce side, but they combine other demand signals as well, so search engine arguments, etc.
Skorupa: Thanks, George. We're going to bring in Maninder, and we are going to discuss some of these key points. We've highlighted some targets that we want to bring up, but we certainly are open to input on topics and discussion areas.
Now, Maninder, I’d like to talk about fulfillment. This was high on the retailer priority list. It's high on the recommendation list for retailers to invest in and resolve problems that have cropped up. Maninder, in your viewpoint, how should optimizing fulfillment be best approached today by retailers?
Singh: As we interact with clients, I'm hearing very consistently that it's not the organizations that are competing, but the supply chains. The ability of the organizations to manage and do the supply chain better than others gives that competitive edge. From what we've seen, particularly in the last two years of the pandemic, those who are in the supply chain know that impossible is possible. The skills and competencies that are needed to excel in supply chain logistics and fulfillment are the same that are needed to excel at, for the lack of a better word, disaster relief operations.
Of course, fulfillment itself as a practice area has evolved, very simply. Fulfillment is all about ensuring the product reaches the customers on time. Especially over the last few years, we've seen many fulfillment models getting involved. We are looking at models like BOPAC (buy online, pick up at curb), we've seen BOPIS (buy online, pick-up in-store), store-to-consumer, same-day delivery, and in the middle of all of this is planning, which is the very first stage of efficient fulfillment.
That leads to better demand forecasts, issues around stock-outs are prevented, better product availability, and thereby at the end of the day, enhanced customer satisfaction. As a consumer how happy do we feel when an Amazon box gets delivered on-time or even before time? From what we've seen working with clients in this area, there are four high-level components to a successful fulfillment strategy
There are some fancier tools in the marketplace today to look at historical shipments, delivery points, and provide point solutions around where to keep the hubs and, most importantly, what should be the size of these hubs.
Once you've strengthened the network, then you look at customer location accuracy. This is all about converting the physical addresses into geocodes so that they can be readable and more easily tracked in the digital world. Then, you're looking at automated dispatch planning. Once the hubs are strategically placed, it's all about how to sort the shipments, plan the trip schedules, and optimize logistics to deliver optimally around the mid and the last mile of logistics.
Speaking to a lot of clients, this important activity of dispatch planning and route optimization is still done in Excel sheets today, which there's nothing wrong with. However, the more sophisticated retailers are adapting to fancier tools that are available to get the maximum bang for the buck and with the increased automation potential.
Last, but not the least, once all of this is managed, look at delivery accelerators involving resource allocation and the dynamic route for the last mile of delivery. That's what we've been seeing, the role that fulfillment is playing.
Skorupa: Let me ask you a question, this came from a national retailer with both stores and e-commerce, talking about in-store fulfillment. I know I've been covering this for a number of years. Target, for example, is on record saying — I'm not sure what the exact number is — 30 to 50% of e-commerce fulfillment is done from the store. Maybe that was just during the holidays; I'm not sure, but a high number, a really high number. Maninder, how do you make that an efficient method? In your view, is in-store fulfillment an efficient method that retailers can focus on and have as a capability that they should be able to pursue and make work?
Singh: Absolutely. A few days back on the RIS website, I was reviewing how Lululemon broke all e-commerce records — they blew the roof off. Very similarly, talking to the CIO at A&F, and they've also had a fantastic year in terms of e-commerce aspirations, given the pandemic, and striking the right balance between buy online versus the footfall in a brick-and-mortar.
About five or six years back, it was all about planning and forecasting. These were two big pillars and how to leverage new age tools around AI or automated technologies to figure that out. But now, it's all about fulfillment. If you slice the onion deeper, you realize it has an upstream effect on how you set up warehouses, how and what automation tools are used in warehouses.
You would be amazed to see, when you walk into an Amazon warehouse, what robots are doing there today, including packaging and how the robots are placed strategically, not only in warehouses, but also at retail stores. They provide a real-time view into the stock situation in a store and thereby trigger a demand process behind the scene to order more stuff into the store.
In fact, in my experience, we've seen more technological advances in the fulfillment process than anywhere else in the supply chain paradigm or value chain. A huge and essential message to all the supply chain practitioners is that this is an area which is fast-evolving with a lot of technology investments and definitely something for everyone to double-click on.
Skorupa: Good point. George, a question from a nationally recognized expert: he's astonished that visibility and transparency isn't called out in a high priority, red-zone urgency way for investment in priorities in the supply chain. George, I think you have a point about visibility and transparency and what needs to happen for retailers to improve their supply chain in that area.
Lawrie: We were just talking about this earlier, Joe. I had asked one of our clients about this. Everybody's telling me it's visibility that really matters. I'll never forget, our client said, "but it's not really useful to be able to see the visibility of the sports equipment that I have somewhere in Vietnam when the season's already started here in Minneapolis."
Maninder already pointed out that there was a big phase where everyone wanted to do lots of planning. The fact is that the plan never survives the actuality of execution, so what you need to do is continuous re-planning all the time with the execution feeding back into it. The supply network itself needs to flex.
My very first job about 40 years ago, when I first finished graduate school, was calculating the center of demand for consumer goods. Back then, we used to lease trucks and warehouses for three years. If your demand now is partly online, partly in-store, partly subscription, where is the center of my demand? It's moving all the time. The idea of having a supply network that's fixed for three years would be absurd now.
Skorupa: Maninder, one of the sections in this study that we didn't call it out in the presentation asks retailers to talk about the supply chain — supply chain issues, concerns, their description of the current state of the supply chain — and in their own words, quite a few retailers mentioned automation as a key strategy for the future. This was followed by speed of inventory flow and being able to predict and meet demand. How do you view these recommendations, which came in the retailer's own words, and how should they best be approached by retailers to address them?
Singh: Automation is the word used that’s flying everywhere, to be quite honest. We've seen retailers at various stages of evolution in the automation journey. Automation could be as simple as running macros through an Excel sheet, to using some basic bots in operational processes, to more advanced automations around AI and ML, which is automation 2.0, in my opinion.
One very important factor: Everybody would get enamored by seeing fancier automation tools without realizing that when you step back and look at processes, that's the first thing you need to do. Very often we get into supply chain operations and start peeling down into a L2, L3, L4, L5 level of activity, going down to a keystroke level or mouse click activity, then we realize the same process is being done in four different ways by four different agents.
Now you can see we've standardized and simplified a particular process, and taken down wastage from that process. Then, look at what tool will fit in and do that so-called magic.
We've seen AI and ML driving visibility into all aspects of the supply chain with the level of granularity that humans can simply not mimic at scale. There are various areas across the supply value chain where AI can play a big role. We talk about the accurate inventory management around warehouse management operations and automation, the reduced cost of operations, and on-time delivery. We've talked at length about fulfillment as well, but at the same time, we also have to understand that leveraging AI doesn't happen at the flip of a switch.
There are various challenges associated with it, which is where system integrators, like us, play a vital role to address simple challenges around one system complexity. We deal with large legacy monolithic systems, layers of ERP and systems of records, which have to adapt and talk to newer AI automated tools.
Then, there's a scalability factor. A lot of these applications are sitting on prem, whereas most of these tools available in the market today providing AI and ML are sitting on the cloud. How do we make them talk to each other? How do we make applications cloud native so that there's less interoperability issues around that?
While, absolutely, we've seen AI helping in a big way across various points in a supply chain, take a step back and look at your systems. It's difficult to change the system of records, but the name of the game is looking into a system of engagements, which is nothing but a wrapper on top of the system of records. It helps talk more seamlessly, in a more transparent fashion, with AI tools or automation tools that are available in the market.
Skorupa: That was a good way to bring AI into the conversation. George and Maninder, any summary points or final points? Any points we didn't touch on that you consider critical to this conversation that you want to add here?
Lawrie: It's not about replacing people, it's about being a power multiplier for them. If there are things that you want to scale, you can't just throw more people at it. The technology itself has to be transparent to the people.
There's a very long history in the supply chain of premature automation. We know that people don't trust automation because of all the terrible problems that've been through in the past.
Skorupa: Maninder, any big lessons learned? If you could summarize what retailers are experiencing, what shoppers are experiencing, and how we can prepare for the next disruption that is throwing everybody off base right now.
Singh: Particularly for Tech Mahindra, the major part of the growth of the vertical has come through helping clients across the supply chain hurdle. A message to all the young kids: I was in a webinar a few months back, and they said that even if your kid is above average on a topic of supply chain, he'll never be out of job. That’s how this industry is evolving. It's a great place to be in. There's far more recognition of supply chain professionals today than ever because these were the guys who were behind the scene, doing thankless jobs — by that I mean, if things are going well, nobody would bother, but when things break, you are the guy.
Over the last two years, the COVID pandemic has shown us how critical of a piece this is. A cousin of mine finished school in Canada and got into Loblaws. The kind of job satisfaction he has going into it is because he is getting into conversations, which, in a usual scenario would've taken him five, seven years to get into.
That's the message. It's a very hot area.
Quite excited to be on this journey.
Skorupa: I can just imagine the supply chain people walking into the big meetings and everybody turning to them and saying, "Okay, then lead away."
Singh: That's what's happening.
Denman: Well, thank you, everyone. It was a great presentation. Thanks, Joe, Maninder, and George for joining us. Thank you, everyone, for listening in. Like I said in the beginning, you could find the RIS survey on our website, and all of George's stuff is available on forrester.com. Thanks to Tech Mahindra for sponsoring this, and have a great day.