Supply Chain Magic

The first course I ever called my own and got to teach for real was called Physical Distribution Management, which just goes to show how long ago that was and how much has changed. I’ve always been interested by how retailers and suppliers deliver product and service availability and have researched and written about it extensively, not least in my book with John Fernie on Logistics and Retail Management, now with its 4th edition in preparation.

I was therefore delighted to be involved as Chair at the recent Retail Week Supply Chain Summit in London. Over two days a fascinating picture of the changing demands and practices in the retail supply chain emerged.

It still amazes me that so many people think that availability in stores or online is simple. So much of what the retail supply chain achieves is taken for granted. Yet, it delivers time and again, even in a period of massive consumer volatility and uncertain behaviour change, all the time producing high level service and cost performance and not (often) bankrupting the business involved.

So what were my headlines from the Supply Chain Summit?

  • The balance between service and cost in supply chains is becoming much more difficult to manage and the tasks are not getting easier
  • Consumers are ever more demanding and the “blended” supply chain has arrived, whereby consumers make no distinction between stores, internet and mobile channels
  • Transformative change in supply chain structures and behaviours is needed to catch up with and get ahead of these new behaviours, opportunities and practices
  • The more advanced retail supply chains are embarked on ever more sophisticated processes of partnership engagement and alignment, focusing on continuous improvement and refinement
  • Mobile opportunities for consumers require stock, service and other responses that could impact physical stores significantly in terms of service, space, transparency and consumer engagement
  • There is now a true reverse channel, not only for handling systems and information, but also for products; the management of, and speed in, this channel is vital
  • Resilience in the modern retail chain is very demanding
  • Agility will be a way of life in retail, even for supposedly “lean” businesses, and for this, retailers need excellent suppliers, manufacturers and other partners.

Retail supply chains really do remarkable things, continuing to provide products and services as and when we need them. Just don’t think it is easy, cheap or inevitable and don’t take them for granted.

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students.
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