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Forbes – Using data insights and the power of technology to shape the supply chain industry

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Using Data, Insights And The Power Of Technology To Shape The Supply Chain Industry

October 10, 2022   ·   By Rob Garrison

October 10, 2022
By Rob Garrison

An introduction
I’ve often spoken about the manual state of the global supply chain, but many in the industry are still unaware of how big this problem is. To put it simply, the most influential tool used by most importers to track their orders today was released in 1985: Microsoft Excel. So by implication, this spreadsheet software is currently determining the success of upwards of $340 billion worth of products that arrive in the U.S. every year.

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Since 1985, it’s fair to say that the industry has become much larger and more complex than we could ever have expected—outpacing the role spreadsheets were intended to play. Over my time working to bring new solutions through a digital platform for the supply chain, I've noticed that compared to 40 years ago, the number of importers has also increased exponentially to handle the scale at which consumers have driven the retail landscape.

Yet alongside this booming growth, a darker, more chaotic side to the international supply chain has emerged. Unforeseen shocks and events have exposed the vulnerabilities and fragilities of an industry that has shifted from a linear “chain” to a complex array of networks and nodes. The “ripple” (more akin to a tidal wave) brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted weaknesses brought about by untransparent supplier relationships, low inventory levels and single-vendor sourcing as:

  • Regional factory shutdowns played havoc with production as importers struggled to understand manufacturing capacity.
  • Raw material shortages revealed an over-reliance on a select number of suppliers to fulfill a high quota of output.
  • A lack of investment in aligning e-commerce with brick-and-mortar sales led to missed sales opportunities as consumers shifted almost exclusively to online shopping.

In short, vast swathes of importers were ill-prepared, under-skilled and lacked mitigation strategies to navigate shortfalls in their supply-side networks.

Data is good; insights are better.

If the pandemic acted as a signal to grab importers’ attention, the aftermath is set to mobilize action. The lack of foresight and forward planning that crumbled the Western world almost overnight is not something board directors, investors or consumers want to experience again. Yet at its core, the past two years have revealed as much about businesses’ intimate knowledge of their operations as it has their lack of preparedness.

Over the past decade, we’ve seen a clear push toward harnessing the power of data (both “big” and “small”). This has driven greater visibility and improving the overall transparency of the global supply chain to better understand and manage the way imports get from source to store. But the market’s unpredictability and fragility that has surfaced hasn’t changed this desire—if anything, I think it’s made data all the more necessary.

Markets have come to be known for rewarding companies that invest heavily in the data side of their operations. I’ve seen investments soar in firms offering middle and final mile visibility platforms, alongside those that leverage the power of bleeding-edge technologies, such as blockchain, to create a more robust supply chain tech-stack. However, data is just one hurdle to overcome; the next that follows quickly is how to use it.

Let me take you through an example: If we take the fundamental supplier-importer relationship, the first thing we must understand is who those suppliers are, where they are based and the outer layers of their supplier networks on whom they rely on to supply raw materials and goods. If a factory shuts down and can’t manufacture goods, what are the options to pivot to a different factory? Or to find alternative labor sources? Or is a new supplier needed altogether? And how quickly can this shift be done?

Real-time data feeds help provide the fuel to power such choices, with insight-led analytics engines that help shape the “next-best decision.” Such technology is already steering the success of many large retailers that have had to combat challenging market conditions with fluctuating consumer demand. (Disclosure: My company provides one of these solutions.) For the majority of the market, however, I've noticed investment in such tools has been low to none.

What does this mean?

On the surface, it might look like the proverbial links in the supply chain are being held together with manual methods and printed documents papering over the cracks. But in reality, those very links aren’t even connected, as each business unit is working independently from the next. I think our collective goal as an industry, therefore, should be to reconnect and automate the chain so it can work efficiently. Steps leaders can take include:

  • Vet vendors before they begin manufacturing products, with verification, education and information centralized and managed.
  • Digitally create and share purchase orders (POs) between suppliers, importers and internal teams to ensure a single source of truth.
  • Automatically generate shipping documents directly from the PO to minimize—and ultimately eradicate—human error.
  • Layer analytics on top to provide real-time insights into a product’s disposition.

It feels obvious, however, these basic fundamentals are lacking in many importers' supply chains. By taking these essential actions, we can bring the global supply chain into the modern era, and in doing so, connect all the links. The good news is there are very few existing systems that would require “rip-and-replace.”

I think the main issue the industry faces today is a wealth of point solutions that address individual supply chain challenges but don’t offer cumulative benefits. Importers already have to contend with a tech-stack composed of multiple tools, so make sure to find the right solutions that work with, rather than against, existing business processes.

When transitioning to a more modern approach, staying with the status quo can seem easier than implementing change. But I've found getting ahead of the curve when digitizing and connecting your supply chain can ultimately lead to the north star of every company: increased sales—which, at the end of the day, is what matters when it comes to board room meetings and annual reviews. So the only question that remains is: Are you ready?

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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