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School is back in session, and that means it’s time for the sacred annual tradition of back-to-school shopping. But, as parents everywhere gather their kids and scramble around town, they’re finding a problem. Items such as backpacks, shoes, and other school supplies which are usually plentiful this time of year, are missing from retail shelves.
What seems like a minor annoyance for parents is actually a global, widespread issue. Read this guide as we investigate the reasons behind the empty shelves.
What is a Supply Chain?
A supply chain refers to the network of suppliers that create a chain of parts and products for other suppliers. In the end, this results in the products that are for sale to consumers. A single company can have a huge network of suppliers from all over the world that produce the parts they need to make their products.
For example, a company that makes shoes would need access to plastic parts, leather, foam, and other supplies. Not to mention, any parts their production line itself would need, such as computer chips to control their robotic assembly line. This global supply chain can get pretty messy, which is why we offer logistics solutions for companies to help keep track of their suppliers, and to maximize the efficiency of their supply chain.
The Just-In-Time Supply Chain
One way to cut down on costs and save space for businesses is to cut down on warehousing. Instead of spending money and space stocking excess material, parts, and equipment, companies can arrange to have these items delivered right when they’re needed.
This is the “just-in-time” supply chain. Companies can save tons of money by reducing the upkeep of huge warehouses full of material that they won’t need until later.
For example, a clothing company can arrange for cotton, dye, loom machine parts to arrive right on time. That way, the company would have much smaller warehousing costs. They would only need enough room to store their final products before shipping.
Since this option saves a lot of money, many companies have adopted this “just-in-time” method in recent years. Keeping track of all these supplies takes precious time and resources. This is why supply chain management is crucial for retailers, infrastructure, and many other industries.
The downside to this strategy is that any break or disruption in the chain can cause a major logistics delay worldwide.
Let’s say for example that companies that make movie theater butter for popcorn have regular shipments of a certain chemical. The company that produces the chemical has regular shipments of plastic bottles to store the chemical. The plastic bottle company needs regular shipments of parts to repair their machines, and so on. Any delay in any part of this chain means that movie theaters are out of butter.
One way to prevent this is to diversify the supply chain and have more than one potential supplier for each required part. That way we can prevent crises like the one we’re in now from ever occurring.
Remember back to the beginning of the pandemic, when there was a massive panic about toilet paper? It was wild. People were gifting each other toilet paper packages as birthday presents, and it was a weird time for us all.
The toilet-paper shortage was an early warning sign of many other supply chain issues to come. This has been happening to other industries since the pandemic began, but most consumers weren’t affected until recently. But how did the pandemic disrupt the supply chain?
First, there has been a shortage of workers in every industry since the start of the pandemic. Many workers got sick and had to quarantine, or had to quit their jobs for health reasons.
Having fewer workers means that there are fewer people around to run factories that make crucial parts. It also means there are fewer people to ship those parts and products worldwide.
On top of that, there was a higher demand for certain items, such as masks and personal protective equipment for workers in the ICU. There was also a higher demand for single-use needles and other items needed for vaccine distribution. As factories ramp up production to meet these demands, their priorities shift away from other items made at the same plant.
The COVID-19 pandemic is only the beginning of the story. Natural disasters around the world such as flooding and heavy storms have also disrupted the shipping industry. This makes it harder for parts and supplies to get to certain areas.
Finally, it all culminated in the ship that broke the camel’s back. A massive cargo ship was lodged in the Suez Canal in Egypt for almost a week, and it took a few more weeks for the vital trade passage to return to normal.
For Americans, this doesn’t seem like much of a big deal, since we get most of our shipping from China through the Pacific Ocean or the Panama Canal. But remember from earlier, the “just-in-time” supply chain breaks down if factories don’t get the parts they need right on time.
A delay in a few weeks can mean that factories in the UK that were waiting on parts have to halt production. If those factories in turn made parts that other factories needed, those factories have to stop as well.
This has led to the global supply chain issues we see happening now. As a result, there are widespread shortages in everything from flavored coffee syrups and movie theater butter to pipette tips and external-door weather stripping.
Why are Back-to-School Retail Shelves Empty?
Backpacks and stationery are seasonal items since the demand for them is higher in late summer. The “just-in-time” supply chain means that companies would rather not hold these items in warehouses year-round. Instead, they ramp up production of school supplies in mid-to-late summer, so they’re ready right when they’re needed.
The pandemic, natural disasters, and the Suez Canal blockage all disrupted the global supply chain. These disruptions mean that the companies that make some of these items couldn’t make enough this year to meet the higher demands.
All this happens at a crucial time. National projections suggested that back-to-school sales would increase this year. Since many parents are anxious to get their kids out of the house and back to in-person learning, there is a higher demand for back-to-school items.
Many who recognized these patterns earlier this summer were able to get their shopping done early. Now, as students return to class, parents face stores with empty shelves. Since many people chose not to get these items last year, they don’t have anything left from last year to use now.
What Can We Do?
Because of digital and remote learning, paper items or backpacks weren’t really needed last year. Parents and teachers who bought these items last year may still have a few extras lying around.
If you happen to have these extra supplies that you didn’t use from last year, you’re in a good position to help others. You can help your local community by donating anything you don’t need to a local food bank or back-to-school drive.
To replace the missing backpacks and other school essentials, we’ll need some creative and thrifty solutions. If you have more than one kid, you could try to re-use the older child’s backpack as a hand-me-down. If your kids are rough on their backpacks and this won’t work, you might consider how you might be able to repair it.
There are some clever people out there on the web who have made backpacks out of duct tape, and many people picked up new hobbies last year, such as sewing. With help, you might be able to stitch the backpacks together or sew on a patch to cover the holes. It won’t be “cool” or “stylish,” but your kids will have something to use while the supply chain catches up to the high demand.
There’s less you can do about the shoes that your kids will need, but you can try to find gently-used shoes that will work for the time being. Check for these items in unexpected places, such as thrift stores, garage sales, and other second-hand stores to find these items.
Repairing the Global Supply Chain
Logistics delays in the global supply chain have affected back-to-school shopping and many other products and industries. It’s a complex series of problems stemming from the pandemic, natural disasters, and other delays in shipping worldwide.
But we can learn from this crisis and fix the global supply chain if we work together to diversify our suppliers and stock critical supplies and parts. It will take time for supply to catch up with demand, but creative solutions can keep things going until that time comes. If you have questions about supply chain logistics and ways to improve your supply chain system, contact us today or start a live chat any time. We’re glad to help your business find practical solutions for your shipping and supply needs.
To learn more about how Fulfillment IQ can optimize your supply chain, click the button below to start a conversation with our team.
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