Home Posts tagged supply chain
Manufacturing

Making Change

 

The manufacturing tech industry is building back fast, undeterred by significant labor and supply-chain challenges. To maintain this momentum, manufacturers should navigate elevated risks while advancing sustainability priorities. That’s the takeaway, at any rate, from a recent Deloitte report exploring five manufacturing industry trends that can help organizations turn risks into advantages and capture growth.

It’s unusual to see positive economic indicators paired with historic labor and supply-chain challenges. But this is the trajectory for the U.S. manufacturing industry in 2022 emerging from the pandemic. The recovery gained momentum in 2021 on the heels of vaccine rollout and rising demand. As industrial production and capacity utilization surpassed pre-pandemic levels this year, strong increases in new orders for all major subsectors signal growth continuing in 2022.

However, optimism around revenue growth is held in check by caution from ongoing risks. Workforce shortages and supply-chain instability are reducing operational efficiency and margins. Business agility can be critical for organizations seeking to operate through the turbulence from an unusually quick economic rebound — and to compete in the next growth period. As leaders look not only to defend against disruption but strengthen their offense, our 2022 manufacturing-industry outlook examines five important trends to consider for manufacturing playbooks in the year ahead.

 

1. Preparing for the future of work could be critical to resolving current talent scarcity. Record numbers of unfilled jobs are likely to limit higher productivity and growth in 2022, and last year we estimated a shortfall of 2.1 million skilled jobs by 2030. To attract and retain talent, manufacturers should pair strategies such as reskilling with a recasting of their employment brand.

Shrinking the industry’s public perception gap by making manufacturing jobs a more desirable entry point could be critical to meeting hiring needs in 2022. Engagement with a wider talent ecosystem of partners to reach diverse, skilled talent pools can help offset the recent wave of retirements and voluntary exits.

Manufacturing executives may also need to balance goals for retention, culture, and innovation. As flexible work is taking root in offices, manufacturers should explore ways to add flexibility across their organizations in order to attract and retain workers. Organizations that can manage through workforce shortages and a rapid pace of change today can come out ahead.

 

2. Manufacturers are remaking supply chains for advantage beyond the next disruption. Supply-chain challenges are acute and still unfolding. There’s no mistaking that manufacturers face near-continuous disruptions globally that add costs and test abilities to adapt. Purchasing manager reports continue to reveal systemwide complications from high demand, rising costs of raw materials and freight, and slow deliveries in the U.S.

Transportation challenges are likely to continue in 2022 as well, including driver shortages in trucking and congestion at U.S. container ports. As demand outpaces supply, higher costs are more likely to be passed on to customers.

Root causes for extended U.S. supply-chain instability may include overreliance on low inventories, rationalization of suppliers, and hollowing out of domestic capability. Supply-chain strategies in 2022 are expected to be multi-pronged. Digital supply networks and data analytics can be powerful enablers for more flexible, multi-tiered responses to disruptions.

 

3. Acceleration in digital technology adoption could bring operational efficiencies to scale. Manufacturers looking to capture growth and protect long-term profitability should embrace digital capabilities from corporate functions to the factory floor. Smart factories, including greenfield and brownfield investments for many manufacturers, are viewed as one of the keys to driving competitiveness.

More organizations are making progress and seeing results from more connected, reliable, efficient, and predictive processes at the plant. Emerging and evolving use cases can continue to scale up from isolated in-house technology projects to full production lines or factories, given the right mix of vision and execution.

U.S. manufacturers have room to run with advanced manufacturing compared to many competitors globally. Advanced global ‘lighthouse’ factories showcase the art of the possible in bringing smart manufacturing to scale. Investment in robots, cobots, and artificial intelligence can continue to transform operations. Foundational technologies such as cloud computing enable computational power, visibility, scale, and speed. Industrial 5G deployment may also expand in 2022 along with advances in technology and use cases.

 

4. Rising cybersecurity threats are leading the industry to new levels of preparedness. High-profile cyberattacks across industries and governments in the past year have elevated cybersecurity as a risk-management essential for most executives and boards. Surging threats during the pandemic added to business risk for manufacturers in the crosshairs for ransomware.

An expanding attack surface from the connection of operational technology (OT), information technology (IT), and external networks requires more controls. Legacy systems and technology weren’t purpose-fit for today’s sophisticated network challenges. Now, remote-work vulnerabilities leave manufacturers even more susceptible to breaches.

Manufacturers should look not only at their cyberdefenses, but also at the resiliency of their business in the event of a cyberattack. Cybercriminals can cause harm beyond intellectual-property theft and financial losses, using malware that now ties in AI and cryptocurrencies. They can also shut down operations and disrupt entire supplier networks, compromising safety as well as productivity. A patchwork of regulations for different industries could be consolidated under the current administration’s ‘whole-of-nation’ approach to protect critical infrastructure. The potential for additional oversight is likely to prompt more industrials to rethink preparedness for crisis response.

 

5. Manufacturers are likely to bring more resources and rigor to advancing sustainability. The fast rise of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors is redefining and elevating sustainability in manufacturing as never before. Cost of capital can be tied to ratings on ESG, making it a priority for organizational financial health and competitiveness. Expectations for reporting on diversity, equity, and inclusion metrics in manufacturing will likely continue to rise. Board diversity, while progressing slowly, is also showing some momentum. To attract talent and appeal to workforce expectations, most manufacturers are making ESG efforts more visible.

Depending on a manufacturer’s end markets, environmental accountability is increasingly a focus. To develop and deliver against net-zero or carbon-neutral goals, more organizations are dedicating or redesigning sustainability roles and initiatives and quantifying efforts and results around energy consumption. And the fast-evolving ESG landscape may require close monitoring in 2022 for manufacturers.

Many organizations are complying voluntarily within a complex network of reporting regulations, ratings, and disclosure frameworks. But regulators globally are also moving toward requiring disclosure for more non-financial metrics. Proactive approaches may help manufacturers stay ahead of the change and create competitive advantage.

Employment Special Coverage

Employers Are Still Laboring

Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast (EANE), has worked in the broad realm of human resources for decades. She’s seen a lot when it comes to different kinds of employment-market conditions, but admits that she hasn’t seen anything quite like this.

“This is an anomaly; employers have not been in a position where they’re not in control of the job market for a long, long time,” she said. “It’s been a long time since employees have had this kind of control.”

And it looks like they will maintain control for the foreseeable future, said Wise and others we spoke with, because the forces of supply and demand are certainly in their favor — as they have been since well beyond the pandemic, but now, even more so.

Indeed, the national unemployment rate in May remained at 3.6% for the third month in a row, just slightly above the mark in February 2020 (3.5%), prior to the pandemic — this despite a general cooling of the economy amid soaring inflation, supply-chain issues, the war in Ukraine, and other factors.

These numbers translate into a smaller pool of available, qualified labor, continued headaches for employers, and, as Wise said, control of the front seat in the hands of employees.

“Demand and supply still do not align where we would like them to, and more importantly, they’re not aligned where most industries and employers thought they would be at this point post-pandemic, whatever post-pandemic actually means,” said David Cruise, president and CEO of MassHire Springfield Career Center. “I think the pandemic is still very much a driving factor in decision making on the part of applicants, as well as, to some degree, on the part of the employer.”

Elaborating, he told BusinessWest that employers are struggling on several fronts; they’re not seeing large numbers of applicants for positions to be filled, they’re not seeing enough qualified applicants, and when they do find people they want to hire, they’re struggling to retain them because other job opportunities with better pay and benefits continue to present themselves.

Meredith Wise

Meredith Wise

“This is an anomaly; employers have not been in a position where they’re not in control of the job market for a long, long time. It’s been a long time since employees have had this kind of control.”

As a result, companies are spending far more than would be considered normal to recruit, hire, and onboard help, said Cruise, noting that, as retention rates continue to fall, employers are expending more time, money, and energy — all precious commodities, especially with small businesses — on the hiring process.

In other words, the Great Resignation isn’t over, although, as the economy falters, there are questions about how long it will last.

“We’re continuing to see a lot of people quitting their jobs and starting new ones,” said Chris Geehern, executive vice president of Public Affairs & Communication for Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM). “My sense is that, as the economy weakens and job growth slows down, that phenomena will also slow down because employees now think, ‘I can quit this job and go to six different places.’ But if there are only two job openings opposed to the six, employees think twice about leaving.”

After federal benefits ran out in September 2020, most employers thought there would be an onslaught of job seekers rushing to fill positions. But when people weren’t flooding career centers for help, employers decided they needed to revamp their systems.

There is an emphasis on ‘the next job,’ so employers needed to find new ways to attract workers, meaning their marketing strategies needed to change, said Dave Gadaire, president and CEO of MassHire Holyoke Career Center, adding that companies are “getting more aggressive in how they recruit; they’re taking more advantage of not just social media, but the airwaves and newspapers.”

Employers are also attending more job fairs, both virtually and in person. In the past month, MassHire has held job fairs in Holyoke and Springfield. Each of those fairs brought in more than 200 job seekers and more than 50 businesses, but the demand still far exceeds supply.

David Cruise

As retention rates continue to fall, David Cruise says, employers are spending more money on the hiring process, from recruiting to onboarding.

For this issue and its focus on employment, BusinessWest looks at the issues shaping the current job market, the outlook at least for the short term, and whether employers may gain back control of the market any time soon.

 

Work in Progress?

Those we spoke with said the current challenges are not restricted to certain sectors of the economy; it’s essentially across the board, with some industry groups, especially essential service sectors, particularly hard-hit. National hire rates have stayed the same at 4.4% over the past year despite more people looking for work, and despite news of layoffs in some sectors, especially financial services.

“Demand and supply still do not align where we would like them to, and more importantly, they’re not aligned where most industries and employers thought they would be at this point post-pandemic, whatever post-pandemic actually means.”

“You do see companies both hiring and laying off at the same time,” said Gadaire. “It’s confusing for people because employers need different skills, and they have the choice to train their employees up or let them go and get new employees with those skills instead. The cost of training subtracts from the bottom line. They could be great employees and the employer wants to keep them, but now they have to get paid more and get the training they need to be qualified.”

Instead of layoffs, companies are trying to slow down the hiring process, he continued. “Instead of layoffs, we’re seeing some of the companies delaying their hiring a little bit; instead of hiring 50 people, they’re hiring 40 people, that kind of thing.”

For those are hiring — and that’s most companies — it’s not business as usual, or what managers were used to before the pandemic and that aforementioned Great Recession.

Indeed, bonuses and higher wages are now the norm for businesses looking to attract — and retain — help. Companies are offering sign-on bonuses, some as hefty as $2,000, when applying and staying at a business for six months or more. That means that companies are having to rework their pay scales from the inside to retain workers.

Beyond higher wages and bonuses, companies are offering other incentives, including flexible hours and, when possible, remote work.

Wise told BusinessWest that one of EANE’s manufacturing members in the central part of the state uses flex time on its shop floor, meaning employees can have a more fluid work schedule to match their personal schedule.

But perhaps what job applicants are seeking most is culture, Cruise noted.

“Over time, the money is certainly an incentive, but it won’t be able to retain people over time without some adjustment with culture and schedules,” he explained, adding that, perhaps above all else, job seekers want to know they’re valued and heard by their employer.

“Most progressive, good companies where people want to work and build a career are working really hard to not only outreach employees and market their business, but make the case to workers that their place of business is a good place to work, not only for the financial and benefit packages, but from the perspective of having a work culture and schedules that work with the employees’ life cycle,” he went on. “Companies are trying to look at schedules that allow flexibility with an understanding that business still has to operate and has to have accommodations to make sure the work gets done.”

Gadaire agreed. He told BusinessWest about an employee who continues to work for the MassHire center because of the care she feels from her co-workers and bosses.

“She and her son got COVID early on in the pandemic, and she had to quarantine in a hotel because her mother and grandmother were living with her at the time,” he noted. “We had staff members bringing food to her, checking in, picking up medications for her every day. She said that was a difference maker for her because the amount of care meant something. She felt like her son’s health mattered to us, and she said, ‘I’ve never felt that from other jobs.’”

Good management is another key, said those we spoke with, adding that this equates to giving employees a voice and a say in how things go, making sure they’re appropriately compensated, and making sure their benefits programs are up to date with what current job seekers are looking for.

Beyond these steps, many businesses and industry groups are becoming far more proactive when it comes to creating larger pools of qualified workers. This includes work to partner with vocational schools and other institutions to create pipelines of talent — and keep a steady flow of potential employees in that pipeline.

“Employers really have to find a way of capturing and attracting the kind of skilled workers they really need,” Geehern said. “For example, you will find manufacturing and engineering companies will establish a setup with Springfield Technical Community College, Holyoke Community College, or UMass Amherst. Some of these are training partnerships, some are research partnerships, but it allows them to establish some sort of connection with the institutions that are training the people that are going to be tomorrow’s workers.”

 

Hire Power

Moving forward, the overarching question concerns just how long this will remain an employees’ market. Much depends, economists say, on whether there is a recession and, if there is one, what impact it will have on the jobs market.

The monthly Business Confidence Index (BCI), initiated by AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors, noted that 76% of CEOs globally tell the Conference Board that they expect a recession by the end of 2023 or believe it’s already here. The economy appears to be growing, but employers face growing struggles with soaring fuel prices, supply-chain disruptions, and financial-market volatility.

Chris Geehern

Chris Geehern

“We’re continuing to see a lot of people quitting their jobs and starting new ones. My sense is that, as the economy weakens and job growth slows down, that phenomena will also slow down because employees now think, ‘I can quit this job and go to six different places.’ But if there are only two job openings opposed to the six, employees think twice about leaving.”

The BCI is based on a survey of AIM member companies across Massachusetts, asking questions about current and prospective business conditions in the state and nation, as well as about respondents’ own operations. The index is based on a 100-point scale. A reading above 50 indicates that the state’s employer community is predominantly optimistic, while a reading below 50 points translates to a negative assessment of business conditions.

According to the BCI, business confidence fell 3.9 points to 50.8 in June. The index sits 12.6 points lower than a year ago and marginally higher than the 50 mark that separates an optimistic from a pessimistic view. The Current Index, which assesses overall business conditions at the time of the survey, declined 3.3 points to 53.4. The Future Index, measuring projections for the economy six months from now, lost 4.6 points to 48.1.

The Wall Street Journal surveyed economists in June, and its consensus forecast was that unemployment will be 3.9% at the end of this year and 4.6% by the end of 2023. That rate would be higher than what economists are looking at now but, by historic standards, a much lower unemployment rate than is typical for a recession.

“What we may be looking at for the moment here is a jobful recession, rather than a jobless recovery,” Geehern said. “In the sense that job creation has slowed down, it certainly slowed and is out of sync with what we perceive as the decline in output. And those are two things you look at when you want to gauge if we’re in a recession or not: what is happening to economic output and what is happening to employment.”

Elaborating, he said that as economic output goes down, unemployment generally goes up. This time around, the economic output went down in the first and second quarter, but the job market has stayed resilient.

Whether things will stay that way remains to be seen. For now, and for the foreseeable future, what Wise calls an anomaly will be the status quo.

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus

Supply Chain of Events

Supply chain.

That’s a two-word phrase that had rarely made its way into the lexicon of most area residents before the COVID-19 pandemic; it was generally assumed that the shelves in the stores would be crammed with product — because they always had been.

But in a year when there have been shortages of cleaning supplies, surgical masks, beef, fish, hair coloring, paper towels, ice cream, rice, frozen pizza, and, yes, toilet paper — a product that has become a metaphor for a crisis — people can no longer take supply chain, and full shelves, for granted.

This has been a learning experience — on a number of levels.

So too for those who work to keep the shelves stocked. For them, it’s a time of relationship building, finding new ways of doing things, and providing ongoing proof that, while the supply chain has been bent — severely and repeatedly — it hasn’t, in their minds, been broken.

“The supply chain has definitely been tested through all this, and there have been shortages of some things, as everyone knows,” said Michael D’Amour, chief operating officer at Springfield-based Big-Y, the fourth-generation, family-owned grocery chain. “But, overall, I think this crisis has shown just how resilient the supply chain is.”

 

Michael D’Amour

Michael D’Amour

“The supply chain has definitely been tested through all this, and there have been shortages of some things, as everyone knows. But, overall, I think this crisis has shown just how resilient the supply chain is.”

 

Doug Baker, vice president of Industry Relations for the Food Marketing Institute, (FMI) agreed.

“Almost weekly we’re getting back numbers, and we’re still seeing double-digit growth across many categories — and you can’t have double-digit growth if inventory is not available,” he said, referring to specific product lines ranging from cleaning supplies to frozen foods. “It’s just a matter of matching inventory with consumer demand, and that’s been the challenge.

“And that’s why we’ve seen shortages — because that inventory output hasn’t been able to rise to the level of consumer demand,” he went on, adding that recent numbers show a slowing of demand that is giving many producers at least a chance to catch up.

In March, on average, the industry was seeing 35% to 40% increases in overall sales volume, Baker said, while in late May, the number was closer to 20% to 25%.

“We’re seeing sales slow, which is helpful because it allows the supply chain to catch up to an extent,” he explained. “But we also have to understand that those are still pretty significant increases, and we’re not going to go back to pre-COVID days, because the public still has yet to engage in a livelihood that they engaged in before the pandemic, and that’s based on where you see them spending their food dollar.”

D’Amour agreed, noting that, as May turned to June, a good number of people were still in something approaching lockdown mode. They were eating most meals at home because restaurants were only open for takeout. They were also still working at home and, therefore, eating lunch at home. Meanwhile, children are home from school, and college students are home as well. This all adds up to people buying more at the supermarket.

As phase 2 of Gov. Charlie Baker’s reopening plan takes effect on June 8, restaurants will be opening for curbside dining, and preschools and day camps will be reopening. And as more and more people go back to their offices — the ones they left in March for space on their dining room table — the ratio of food dollars spent out of the home will start to rise higher.

How long it will take to reach pre-COVID levels — when 54 cents of each dollar was spent outside the home — remains to be seen, said Baker. However, what is certain is that the situation is fluid at best and it could change in a hurry if cases start to surge, a second wave arrives, and people start spending more time working — and eating — at home.

Doug Baker

Doug Baker

“We’re seeing sales slow, which is helpful because it allows the supply chain to catch up to an extent. But we also have to understand that those are still pretty significant increases, and we’re not going to go back to pre-COVID days, because the public still has yet to engage in a livelihood that they engaged in before the pandemic, and that’s based on where you see them spending their food dollar.”

Meanwhile, this new normal has essentially forced chains like Big Y to forge new alliances with suppliers, said D’Amour, noting that as restaurants, colleges, and schools of all kinds closed earlier this year, this created an enormous surplus of inventory, but put the demand on grocery stores, while also creating an opportunity to redeploy goods and resources to grocery retail to meet demand and reduce waste.

One such alliance, one that typifies how suppliers and grocers are working together to forge solutions, involves Little Leaf Farms in Shirley, a local partner and grower of lettuce that saw demand decline dramatically as schools and restaurants closed a few months back and was looking for new opportunities to sell product and reduce the kind of waste that was seen almost nightly on major news broadcasts.

“They’re one example of so many local partners who have sat down with us and worked to figure out how to maximize business between us and keep their stuff growing and moving through the pipeline when the restaurants were shut down,” D’Amour explained. “We worked with them on supply and hotter deals and pricing to keep it moving through the grocery channels.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with several players involved with supply chain about the lessons learned to date and how they will help the broad food industry through the uncertain months to come.

Food for Thought

As noted earlier, the laws of supply and demand generally take care of shortages on store shelves — in normal times.

But these are not normal times, said those we spoke with. Still, those laws have applied to items like surgical masks. Hard to find only six weeks ago, they are now seemingly everywhere, and in large quantities, as a number of companies started making them — and more of them.

“Everyone’s getting into the mask business now,” Baker explained, adding quickly that it’s much easier to convert machines to make those products than it is to supply more canisters of Lysol or make more rolls of toilet paper, as simple as that might sound.

“Paper manufacturers have been putting in additional lines,” he said. “But the challenge the industry is facing now is that there two types of fiber used to make toilet paper — there’s recycled fiber and there’s virgin fiber, and with recycled fiber, the supply is low, and not every machine can be converted to use virgin fiber, so you’re going to have less output if you can’t convert.”

And sometimes, because of the pandemic, producers simply cannot meet demand.

That was the case for several weeks — although matters have improved — when it came to supplies of meat and chicken, said Baker, noting that, early on, plants were shut down temporarily. And when they reopened, to keep workers safe, production lines were altered in ways that actually slowed production.

Such specific cases help explain shortages of particular items, said those we spoke with, adding that, overall, many of the empty shelves result from unprecedented demand and panic buying that is starting to wane in many instances. But as the year continues, more lessons will certainly be learned, said D’Amour, adding that there have been plenty of learning experiences already.

Elaborating, he said that, from the beginning, those at Big Y have been watching what’s happening globally, anticipating, and “trying to get on top of things” — a phrase he would use many times — when it comes to everything from employee and customer safety to creating efficient traffic flow in the stores, to keeping items on the shelves.

This has obviously led to new policies and procedures — from the directional arrows on the floors to special hours created for seniors to the plexiglass screens at the check-out counters.

“For us, the biggest component is the people part, and that continues to be stressed by our suppliers, wholesalers, and others,” he said, adding that, while much of that panic buying and hoarding is being talked about in the past tense, the need for diligence remains, and chains like Big Y can’t let their guards down.

Getting back to the supply chain, D’Amour said it has been a struggle in some well-documented areas, but suppliers are responding by trying to increase supply and also reduce the number of overall SKUs to help put some product on the shelves.

“Where people are used to walking down the paper aisle and seeing 150 different choices of bath tissue and paper towels, now they’re seeing far fewer,” he said. “But products are coming back; we’re working with all our partners to get them back in.”

Perhaps the biggest key to providing quality service to customers during the crisis has been efforts to forge new partnerships and stronger relationships with those within the food-service industry, said D’Amour. He mentioned ongoing work with Springfield-based Performance Food Group as one example.

“They’ve done a phenomenal job working with us, working together, to figure out what food they have stuck in the pipeline that we can use,” he explained, adding that, over the past several months, PFG, as it’s called, has even helped with trucking and labor for either Big Y’s warehouse or at wholesale partners. “Most of these partnerships we’ve had have been mutually beneficial, but there are strategies and tactics that we’ve never done before; everyone’s been very open and ready to fight the battle, work together, and think of new ways to partner for the benefit of the consumers.”

Which brings him to Little Leaf Farms. Paul Sellew, owner and founder of that facility, which began operations just four years ago, said it is now part of a larger local-food movement that not only puts fresher produce on the shelves, but in many ways helps ease flow of product through the supply chain.

“People don’t realize that 95% of the leafy greens that you see in the grocery store are grown in California and Arizona,” he explained. “And when you have this global pandemic, an unprecedented situation, that puts stress on the supply chain, so imagine managing a supply chain from Selinas, California to Springfield, as opposed to my supply chain, from Devens, Mass. to Springfield.”

Little Leaf has historically seen much of its business fall into the broad category of food service — restaurants, schools, and other institutions. But with the pandemic and the sharp decline of demand on that side, the company, like many other suppliers, has shifted into retail grocery, which has been a win/win/win, for those growers, the grocers, and, ultimately, consumers.

“When you get these unprecedented events, you really want to make this region stronger and more resilient, and food is such a strong, fundamental component of that,” he went on. “And that’s why we’re so grateful for partnerships like the one we have with Big Y, which has supported us from day one.”

Overall, there is a ‘new normal’ within the grocery/food-service industry, a phrase now being heard in virtually every sector of the economy. It involves a landscape that could change quickly and profoundly depending on the pandemic and its impact.

No one really knows when there will be real light at the end of the tunnel, said D’Amour, adding that Big Y, like all those it is partnering and working with, needs to remain nimble and flexible, and continue to work in partnership with others to not only keep the shelves stocked, but also keep people safe.

Bottom Line

Summing up the past several months, those we spoke with said it’s been a challenging and in many ways difficult time, where, again, many important lessons have been learned that will serve consumers, suppliers, and retailers well in the uncertain months still to come.

“The United States is a country of abundance, and the supply chain is a beneficiary of this abundance,” Baker said. “Yes, the supply chain is strained, and some shortages will be experienced, but it’s not broken — there are not critical disruptions in the supply chain.”

The hope, and the expectation, said D’Amour, is that things will stay that way.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus

Supply Chain of Events

By George O’Brien

Supply chain.

That’s a two-word phrase that had rarely made its way into the lexicon of most area residents before the COVID-19 pandemic; it was generally assumed that the shelves in the stores would be crammed with product — because they always had been.

But in a year when there have been shortages of cleaning supplies, surgical masks, beef, fish, hair coloring, paper towels, ice cream, rice, frozen pizza, and, yes, toilet paper — a product that has become a metaphor for a crisis — people can no longer take supply chain, and full shelves, for granted.

This has been a learning experience — on a number of levels.

So too for those who work to keep the shelves stocked. For them, it’s a time of relationship building, finding new ways of doing things, and providing ongoing proof that, while the supply chain has been bent — severely and repeatedly — it hasn’t, in their minds, been broken.

Michael D’Amour

“The supply chain has definitely been tested through all this, and there have been shortages of some things, as everyone knows,” said Michael D’Amour, chief operating officer at Springfield-based Big-Y, the fourth-generation, family-owned grocery chain. “But, overall, I think this crisis has shown just how resilient the supply chain is.”

Doug Baker, vice president of Industry Relations for the Food Marketing Institute, (FMI) agreed.

“Almost weekly we’re getting back numbers, and we’re still seeing double-digit growth across many categories — and you can’t have double-digit growth if inventory is not available,” he said, referring to specific product lines ranging from cleaning supplies to frozen foods. “It’s just a matter of matching inventory with consumer demand, and that’s been the challenge.

Doug Baker

“And that’s why we’ve seen shortages — because that inventory output hasn’t been able to rise to the level of consumer demand,” he went on, adding that recent numbers show a slowing of demand that is giving many producers at least a chance to catch up.

In March, on average, the industry was seeing 35% to 40% increases in overall sales volume, Baker said, while in late May, the number was closer to 20% to 25%.

“We’re seeing sales slow, which is helpful because it allows the supply chain to catch up to an extent,” he explained. “But we also have to understand that those are still pretty significant increases, and we’re not going to go back to pre-COVID days, because the public still has yet to engage in a livelihood that they engaged in before the pandemic, and that’s based on where you see them spending their food dollar.”

D’Amour agreed, noting that, as May turned to June, a good number of people were still in something approaching lockdown mode. They were eating most meals at home because restaurants were only open for takeout. They were also still working at home and, therefore, eating lunch at home. Meanwhile, children are home from school, and college students are home as well. This all adds up to people buying more at the supermarket.

As phase 2 of Gov. Charlie Baker’s reopening plan takes effect on June 8, restaurants will be opening for curbside dining, and preschools and day camps will be reopening. And as more and more people go back to their offices — the ones they left in March for space on their dining room table — the ratio of food dollars spent out of the home will start to rise higher.

How long it will take to reach pre-COVID levels — when 54 cents of each dollar was spent outside the home — remains to be seen, said Baker. However, what is certain is that the situation is fluid at best and it could change in a hurry if cases start to surge, a second wave arrives, and people start spending more time working — and eating — at home.

Meanwhile, this new normal has essentially forced chains like Big Y to forge new alliances with suppliers, said D’Amour, noting that as restaurants, colleges, and schools of all kinds closed earlier this year, this created an enormous surplus of inventory, but put the demand on grocery stores, while also creating an opportunity to redeploy goods and resources to grocery retail to meet demand and reduce waste.

One such alliance, one that typifies how suppliers and grocers are working together to forge solutions, involves Little Leaf Farms in Shirley, a local partner and grower of lettuce that saw demand decline dramatically as schools and restaurants closed a few months back and was looking for new opportunities to sell product and reduce the kind of waste that was seen almost nightly on major news broadcasts.

“They’re one example of so many local partners who have sat down with us and worked to figure out how to maximize business between us and keep their stuff growing and moving through the pipeline when the restaurants were shut down,” D’Amour explained. “We worked with them on supply and hotter deals and pricing to keep it moving through the grocery channels.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with several players involved with supply chain about the lessons learned to date and how they will help the broad food industry through the uncertain months to come.

Food for Thought

As noted earlier, the laws of supply and demand generally take care of shortages on store shelves — in normal times.

But these are not normal times, said those we spoke with. Still, those laws have applied to items like surgical masks. Hard to find only six weeks ago, they are now seemingly everywhere, and in large quantities, as a number of companies started making them — and more of them.

“Everyone’s getting into the mask business now,” Baker explained, adding quickly that it’s much easier to convert machines to make those products than it is to supply more canisters of Lysol or make more rolls of toilet paper, as simple as that might sound.

“Paper manufacturers have been putting in additional lines,” he said. “But the challenge the industry is facing now is that there two types of fiber used to make toilet paper — there’s recycled fiber and there’s virgin fiber, and with recycled fiber, the supply is low, and not every machine can be converted to use virgin fiber, so you’re going to have less output if you can’t convert.”

And sometimes, because of the pandemic, producers simply cannot meet demand.

That was the case for several weeks — although matters have improved — when it came to supplies of meat and chicken, said Baker, noting that, early on, plants were shut down temporarily. And when they reopened, to keep workers safe, production lines were altered in ways that actually slowed production.

Such specific cases help explain shortages of particular items, said those we spoke with, adding that, overall, many of the empty shelves result from unprecedented demand and panic buying that is starting to wane in many instances. But as the year continues, more lessons will certainly be learned, said D’Amour, adding that there have been plenty of learning experiences already.

Elaborating, he said that, from the beginning, those at Big Y have been watching what’s happening globally, anticipating, and “trying to get on top of things” — a phrase he would use many times — when it comes to everything from employee and customer safety to creating efficient traffic flow in the stores, to keeping items on the shelves.

This has obviously led to new policies and procedures — from the directional arrows on the floors to special hours created for seniors to the plexiglass screens at the check-out counters.

“For us, the biggest component is the people part, and that continues to be stressed by our suppliers, wholesalers, and others,” he said, adding that, while much of that panic buying and hoarding is being talked about in the past tense, the need for diligence remains, and chains like Big Y can’t let their guards down.

Getting back to the supply chain, D’Amour said it has been a struggle in some well-documented areas, but suppliers are responding by trying to increase supply and also reduce the number of overall SKUs to help put some product on the shelves.

“Where people are used to walking down the paper aisle and seeing 150 different choices of bath tissue and paper towels, now they’re seeing far fewer,” he said. “But products are coming back; we’re working with all our partners to get them back in.”

Perhaps the biggest key to providing quality service to customers during the crisis has been efforts to forge new partnerships and stronger relationships with those within the food-service industry, said D’Amour. He mentioned ongoing work with Springfield-based Performance Food Group as one example.

“They’ve done a phenomenal job working with us, working together, to figure out what food they have stuck in the pipeline that we can use,” he explained, adding that, over the past several months, PFG, as it’s called, has even helped with trucking and labor for either Big Y’s warehouse or at wholesale partners. “Most of these partnerships we’ve had have been mutually beneficial, but there are strategies and tactics that we’ve never done before; everyone’s been very open and ready to fight the battle, work together, and think of new ways to partner for the benefit of the consumers.”

Paul Sellew

Which brings him to Little Leaf Farms. Paul Sellew, owner and founder of that facility, which began operations just four years ago, said it is now part of a larger local-food movement that not only puts fresher produce on the shelves, but in many ways helps ease flow of product through the supply chain.

“People don’t realize that 95% of the leafy greens that you see in the grocery store are grown in California and Arizona,” he explained. “And when you have this global pandemic, an unprecedented situation, that puts stress on the supply chain, so imagine managing a supply chain from Selinas, California to Springfield, as opposed to my supply chain, from Devens, Mass. to Springfield.”

Little Leaf has historically seen much of its business fall into the broad category of food service — restaurants, schools, and other institutions. But with the pandemic and the sharp decline of demand on that side, the company, like many other suppliers, has shifted into retail grocery, which has been a win/win/win, for those growers, the grocers, and, ultimately, consumers.

“When you get these unprecedented events, you really want to make this region stronger and more resilient, and food is such a strong, fundamental component of that,” he went on. “And that’s why we’re so grateful for partnerships like the one we have with Big Y, which has supported us from day one.”

Overall, there is a ‘new normal’ within the grocery/food-service industry, a phrase now being heard in virtually every sector of the economy. It involves a landscape that could change quickly and profoundly depending on the pandemic and its impact.

No one really knows when there will be real light at the end of the tunnel, said D’Amour, adding that Big Y, like all those it is partnering and working with, needs to remain nimble and flexible, and continue to work in partnership with others to not only keep the shelves stocked, but also keep people safe.

Bottom Line

Summing up the past several months, those we spoke with said it’s been a challenging and in many ways difficult time, where, again, many important lessons have been learned that will serve consumers, suppliers, and retailers well in the uncertain months still to come.

“The United States is a country of abundance, and the supply chain is a beneficiary of this abundance,” Baker said. “Yes, the supply chain is strained, and some shortages will be experienced, but it’s not broken — there are not critical disruptions in the supply chain.”

The hope, and the expectation, said D’Amour, is that things will stay that way.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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