As we navigate the remainder of 2023, we know that the challenges of the past several years are far from over. Recent times have brought forth a series of disruptions that have sent shockwaves through an already strained system, affected by challenges stemming from the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ripple effect of the global pandemic. As we peer into the forthcoming year, supply chain planners find themselves facing not only the remnants of past disruptions but also the specter of new and unforeseen events. Adaptability and forward-thinking are paramount.

The holiday season is fast approaching and with it, a sense of urgency pervades the air. Global supply chains preparing to meet the demands of the holiday season are contending with a new layer of complexity, as the vital conduit of the Panama Canal has turned into a bottleneck of grim proportions. The congestion, caused by low water levels attributed to El Niño and the changing climate, has forced authorities to restrict passage through this crucial channel of international trade.

For American businesses, this predicament carries special weight, as approximately 40% of U.S. container traffic traverses the Panama Canal, bridging the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Reports indicate that the consequences are both immediate and far-reaching — including soaring shipping prices and supply chain delays that can ripple across industries.

The situation at the Panama Canal and continuous disruptions serve as reminders of how profoundly interconnected our global supply chain networks are. Supply chain teams need to arm themselves with tools and insights to tackle the uncertainties that lie ahead, build supply chain resilience, and recalibrate their networks to thrive in this ever-evolving environment.

How can supply chain planners construct strong strategies that anticipate and mitigate the repercussions of future disruptions? Here are some considerations to help shape an effective course of action in the years to come:

1. Anticipate Disruptions: Consider Network Redesign

The Panama Canal congestion is just one of many disruptions painting a stark picture of the challenges supply chains face. Low water levels attributed to El Niño and climate change have caused a traffic jam of ships at one of the world's busiest trade routes. This disruption has a ripple effect on global economies, and supply chain planners must be prepared for the domino effect of such incidents. 

As a planner, you should be asking critical questions: How might disruptions impact your supply chain during peak seasons? Are you prepared for delays, increased shipping costs, and potential cancellations? This calls for a shift from reactive to proactive planning. Consider network designs that build resilience and ensure your supply chain can adapt to changing conditions without significant disruption.

2. Scenarios and Holistic End-to-End Planning to Navigate Complexity

Proactive planning can include running scenarios which consider the holistic impact of your decisions on the end-to-end supply chain. From production location to shipping routes, every decision can trigger a cascade of consequences.

Scenarios allow planners to visualize the impact of their decisions and test multiple options with a simple mouse click. If you need to reroute shipments, what adjustments should you make to your network design? What happens if you change production locations? How might that impact shipping routes and lead times? Integrated Business Planning (IBP) becomes essential in this context, allowing you to make data-driven decisions that account for multiple factors.

3. Financial Strategy: Balance Costs and Resilience

The financial repercussions of supply chain decisions have always been pivotal to business outcomes, and all the recent disruptions emphasize the need for a nuanced understanding of cost and resilience. We talked about this recently in our blog: Is it Time to Bring Supply Chain Efficiency Back in Vogue? 

The financial implications of your supply chain decisions are more significant than ever. While it might be tempting to prioritize cost savings, major disruptions underscore the importance of a balanced approach. For example, when foreseeing bottlenecks such as the scene at the Panama Canal – sending all your goods through a more expensive route might seem counterintuitive but could safeguard against unexpected disruptions and potentially increase margins and market share if competitors cannot meet their customers’ demand. 

In this example, planners ought to weigh the cost differences between routes, considering both immediate expenses and the cost of potential future disruptions. A resilient strategy might involve diversifying shipping routes to mitigate the impact of concentrated disruptions, ensuring your supply chain remains adaptable in the face of adversity.

4. Adapt to Evolving Purchasing Patterns: The Omnichannel Imperative

The shift in how, where, and when consumers buy has been significant, and planners must remain agile in adapting to these changes. Online and offline purchasing behaviors have been reshaped by external events and the emergence of new channels, making historical data less reliable. With the potential for further shifts in consumer preferences, planners need to remain flexible.

Ask yourself: Are consumers continuing to embrace online shopping, or is there a resurgence of in-store purchases? Is there an equal distribution of disposable income, or have spending patterns changed? The dynamic nature of these changes requires a fresh perspective on inventory allocation, distribution strategies, and even your product offerings.

5. Read Consumer Trends to Optimize Inventory

The holiday season is a crucial period for supply chains, but the disruptions we're witnessing could reshape consumer behaviors. As inflation and uncertainties loom, consumer spending patterns may continue to change. Companies must delve into consumer sentiment and anticipate how these shifts might impact purchasing decisions as well as return rates, an often-overlooked data point that becomes highly important following the holiday shopping season.

Planning for a surge in returns due to changing consumer preferences is equally important. An additional inventory consideration is when consumers are buying products, with almost half of U.S. consumers starting holiday shopping before December. How are you flowing your inventory over time, and should you reduce inventory by early December? Think about your inventory strategy: Would it be wiser to anticipate reduced consumer spending and adjust your stock levels accordingly?

By staying attuned to consumer trends and financial dynamics, planners can better position their supply chains to weather the uncertainties.

6. Use Demand Sensing as a Competitive Advantage

Amid all the unpredictability, planners can find solace in data. Leveraging demand sensing techniques can provide valuable insights into demand drivers, helping planners stay ahead of trends and anticipate changes in demand. By examining business cycles and analyzing historical data, planners can make informed decisions about inventory levels, production scheduling, and allocation strategies. 

Advanced supply chain planning solutions incorporate AI and machine learning to leverage high levels of data granularity and analyze demand information to detect and predict changes. This also involves extending supply chain visibility and looking for patterns in Point of Sale (POS), social media, weather, IoT and other sources for companies to adjust their forecasts.

Crafting Supply Chain Resilience Amid Uncertainty

As companies march into 2024, the challenges laid bare by recent disruptions compel a new approach. Planners must possess a resilient mindset that embraces uncertainty and change, while leveraging data insights to create strategies that ensure their supply chains remain adaptable. The focus must be on a holistic, dynamic, and data-driven approach to planning.

We’ll help you identify gaps and critical actions to advance in your supply chain maturity journey. Let’s take the next step to help your company weave together financial strategies, consumer insights, and demand sensing techniques to forge a path forward that navigates the complexities of today and tomorrow with confidence.