Supply chain disruptions are causing price increases and a growing shortage of goods as the global economy attempts to deal with the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. Retailers must navigate an unprecedented set of challenges as they contend with delays, stock issues, and customer expectations.1 As lockdowns lift, extraordinary demand for goods has outpaced supply. Consumers are ready to spend money they saved during 2020 and 2021 and are accustomed to readily available goods and nearly instant gratification.2 Unfortunately, the global supply chain bottleneck has resulted in record shortages of once easily accessible products, such as household items, electronics, and automobiles.
What Caused The Supply Chain Crisis?
The pandemic disrupted nearly every aspect of the global supply chain. It placed enormous strain on the usually invisible manufacturing, transportation, and logistics pathway that delivers goods where needed. The supply chain bottleneck led to PPE shortages such as N95 respirators, gloves, cleaning supplies, and other critical care items needed in medical settings, which threatened our ability to fight the COVID-19 threat.3 The supply chain is like an ecosystem with each part playing an essential role and one unfortunate event can result in repercussions downstream. As the world closed down in response to COVID-19, consumers discovered the safest way to buy products was through eCommerce retailers. Skyrocketing demand for products combined with limited supply led to unprecedented delays worldwide.4 The shipping industry did not have the technology or processing ability to cope with the extreme shift in consumer behavior, and items became backlogged. The disruptions stemming from the pandemic combined with economic issues, such as energy shortages, production shortages and issues at key shipping ports have all contributed to the supply chain problems eCommerce businesses face today.
COVID-19 mitigation strategies reduced the production of goods and services as many factories entered lockdowns. Workplace shutdowns in chip manufacturing companies in countries like China, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and South Korea have resulted in a global shortage. This shortage affects the production of electronics like laptops, phones and webcams, appliances, and new cars in which chips are vital components.5 Currently, production of these items remains severely limited, while demand remains high.
Much of the world is facing labor shortages. As companies struggle to find workers for their warehouses, production has struggled to keep up with demand. In August 2021, 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs, and the warehouse industry recorded 490,000 job openings.6 The labor shortage forces companies to go to great lengths to attract workers. Companies are increasing wages to keep up with rising prices, and in some cases offering incentives like free college tuition. Even with these attractive incentives, many potential workers have difficulty reconfiguring their post-covid work futures and are reluctant to return to work as the risk of COVID-19 infection persists.
The Energy Crisis
In countries with manufacturing economies, energy shortages and power cuts have forced productivity to slow in factories, threatening already stressed supply chains. Natural gas supply has failed to meet post-pandemic demand as the energy sector has recovered more quickly than anticipated following a year of reduced coal, oil, and gas extraction.7 Over 20 Chinese provinces are rationing electricity to meet energy efficiency and pollution reductions targets.8 However, there is insufficient renewable energy to replace natural gas, and a coal shortage worsens matters. Global prices for goods and resources produced in China, such as steel and aluminum, will significantly increase if factories contend with widespread power shortages.
Transportation and Logistics Challenges
A global shipping problem is compounding the supply chain crisis by making it difficult for sellers to obtain needed goods, even if they are available. Transportation bottlenecks at ports such as Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Oakland have increased wait times for ships to unload cargo.9 A robust trade of goods strained the available supply of shipping containers, ships, and port operations worldwide.
When the pandemic halted international trade in April 2020, empty containers were no longer collected and redirected for reuse. Over a year later, shipping companies are still trying to get containers to ports where they are needed most. In response, the cost to ship items has risen by 480%, which makes some international trade no longer profitable.10 To complicate matters, a shortage of dockworkers and truck drivers prevents goods from being offloaded and reaching their destination in a timely fashion.11 The lack of these critical components results in more scarcity in the supply chain, leading to even more shortages and price increases.
What eCommerce Retailers can do to Mitigate the Impact of the Supply Chain Crisis?
The global supply chain is a fragile and highly interconnected ecosystem. When unprecedented issues occur, they produce a ripple effect that eCommerce retailers can feel on the other side of the world. Businesses will need to be proactive in their approach to managing these effects. Optimizing operational performance and prioritizing efficiency at every leg of the supply chain is essential to ensure the best use of existing capacity. Retailers should consider implementing productivity improvements such as redesigning warehouses and investing in lean operations to increase productivity and mitigate the risk of disruptions caused by labor shortages.12 It is imperative retailers understand precisely how their supply chain functions. It can be helpful to locate and work with alternative suppliers to ensure a steady flow of necessary parts and materials.13 It is tempting for retailers to concentrate the majority of their business with one supplier in pursuit of volume discounts, but fragmenting the supplier base can help to ease capacity constraints and create new opportunities for sourcing materials as demand for products continues to fluctuate.
If a business can source more of their needs locally, that can also be helpful. Though adding new suppliers is not an easy solution and may result in a higher cost of sourcing materials, it can help a business mitigate risk and avoid disruptions to production.14 Additionally, eCommerce retailers should consider allowing double or triple the lead time for ordering stock due to potential shipping delays.15 It’s essential to stay ahead of seasonal curves when consumers are more inclined to make purchases. Finally, retailers should maintain customer expectations of quality while being honest with their customers and communicating any potential delays.16 Customer expectation management is critical when it comes to protecting brand reputation.