Mercado x Forbes | The Holidays Start Early For Import Elves - Three Strategies To Ensure A Smooth Holiday Season

Forbes – The holidays start early for import elves: Three strategies to ensure a smooth holiday season

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Forbes – The holidays start early for import elves: Three strategies to ensure a smooth holiday season

January 4, 2023   ·   By Rob Garrison

January 4, 2023
By Rob Garrison

The holidays are a crazy time; tensions are high, shopping is top of mind and spending time with family is sure to be as stressful as it is enjoyable. However, for the thousands of importers who sell holiday products, stress starts a lot earlier.
One of the main drawbacks of working in the supply chain world is that planning for the holiday season begins almost a whole year earlier and largely behind closed doors. Consumers don’t see or appreciate the months-long process of planning, buying and manufacturing that goes into the products they scramble and wrestle other shoppers for.

I’ve been at many Christmas parties where I’ve mentioned my profession only to be met with blank stares. It’s not exactly a conversation starter (although special thanks to the Suez Canal for bringing us slightly out of social obscurity).

When it comes to the average consumer, I think an advent calendar is a perfect example to help illustrate the complications in the industry; people recognize this holiday item, yet often don’t know what a difficult product it is to prepare within the January to June production time.

As a run-down, first, the buyer at the importing company is going to have to let the supplier know the specifications of the advent calendar. This includes factors such as:

  • The design. Are they holiday-themed? Pictures of characters? Do we have the proper licensing?
  • The target buyer. Are they unisex socks? For a specific gender? What needs to be done to make the target market clear?
  • The size of the socks. Are they one size fits all? Are they a range? Are we going by U.S. or European sizing? Is it clear the sizing is for children or adults?
  • The material used. Is it hypoallergenic? Was the cotton used to make them in compliance with the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act? Will there be different textures that require new fabric?
  • The manufacturing process. How should the cut outs be perforated so the flaps can be easily opened to get the socks out? How can we avoid injuries to the consumer or damage to the socks?
  • The packaging design. What colors do we want on the box? Are those colors the same all around the box? Is there going to be color inside each of the calendar spaces?
  • The size of the outer packaging. What size does it need to be to fit on the warehouse or store shelves?

This is only just scratching the surface, and it’s not just the products that create potential friction. Working with suppliers thousands of miles away presents further challenges such as language and culture barriers. Intricate details, complex patterns or specific directions can become incrementally trickier to communicate.

Add in governance and compliance requirements—like materials uses, intended use, country of origin, safety and ethics—and you’ve got yourself a cocktail that would keep anyone up at night.

You can’t always get what you want.

As any importer will confirm, even when you do everything “right,” even the smallest shift can derail your plan. Especially since a majority of today’s import supply chain is managed via email and spreadsheets.

The package size? The supplier misread your 10-inch height for the advent calendar packaging and made it 12 inches. Too bad your shelves are only 11 inches tall.

Let’s not even talk about the sock sizes. You didn’t specify U.S. women’s size 7-9, so they made them U.K. women’s size 7-9, meaning they are going to run small.

So what can be done?

The global pandemic exposed the fragility of the supply chain and kick-started a lot of importers into thinking about how products get from Asia to the U.S. Unfortunately, this shift has been misdirected, with many retailers focusing on freight visibility (i.e., how to track goods when they’re on a boat, plane or train).

What they don’t realize is by this point, it’s too late to make changes to an order. That error in the packaging or sizing can’t be solved at this stage. Products are locked in a container in the middle of the Atlantic.

But there’s good news. The following are three ways every importer can help ensure the holidays run smoothly:

  1. Build relationships with your suppliers. The key to successful relationships is trust, and the same is true for the supply chain. Clear communication and understanding can have a huge impact on how smoothly things run. Helping both parties set expectations and proactively rectify issues to make sure products arrive as expected.
  2. Manage changes on the go. With a six-to-nine-month production window, things are bound to change. But how you deal with alterations is the difference between a successful sales season and a festive flop. Change controls are critical in creating, submitting and accepting (or rejecting) proposed changes without them getting lost in an inbox or messaging app.
  3. Implement production controls. With so much in flux (and often hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake), it’s imperative all teams and vendors are aware of when things must be completed in order to meet critical deadlines and get products in-store on time and to spec. By creating and logging milestones, importers create and communicate a clear process and are alerted through notifications when key dates are approaching or have been missed. Then the appropriate action can be taken.

Importers deserve a toast.

It’s not easy being in the import supply chain, but the holiday season adds an extra level of stress due to strict timelines and increased inventory flowing from competing brands. It’s no wonder why importers are stressing about the holidays all year long. It’s not one day of celebration for them—it’s months and months of planning and stressing to make sure everything goes correctly for one day.

Christmas isn’t going to change to January 25 just because Walmart got their Christmas decorations in late. My advice? Start making strides now to make sure you’re doing everything you can to make the holidays a success.

About the author

Rob Garrison, Mercado CEO
A highly accomplished Global Supply Chain executive with 25 years of experience, Rob Garrison has provided strategic vision and leadership to Fortune 500 companies. Rob has an impressive history of building agile, technology-enabled supply chains, and he has an established track record of forging high-growth partnerships, positioning organizations for success and launching innovative technology solutions that significantly improve end-to-end supply chain efficiencies.

Rob is currently CEO and founder of Mercado Labs.
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