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The Tariff Takeaway: It’s Time to Stress-Test Your Supply Chain

After announcing earlier this month that 10% tariffs would go into effect Sept. 1 on $300 billion in Chinese imports, the U.S. reversed course this week and said duties would be delayed until December on certain products. The excluded items include cell phones, laptops, footwear and toys. In addition, other items will be excluded altogether because of health, safety, national security or “other” factors. While the latest news gives some businesses a reprieve, the continued uncertainty – and ongoing tariffs on many Chinese products – have left businesses struggling to mitigate the impact to their operations and their bottom lines.

To deal with the continued fallout, many shippers are exploring ways to reshore goods to other countries. In a recent fashion industry survey, 80% of respondents said they planned to cut back on production in China. But moving manufacturing operations comes with its own disruptions, putting added pressure on already stressed supply chains.

The road to optimization

Whether it’s blanked sailings during peak season, West Coast port strikes or the ongoing drumbeat of tariffs, anything that can go wrong in logistics likely will. Staying competitive in this complex environment requires not just addressing issues as they occur, but also anticipating and planning for whatever may lie ahead.

“It’s been very reactive,” AGL CEO Jon Slangerup recently said of the shipper response to tariffs during the Journal of Commerce Gulf Shipping Conference. “I think everyone is just coming to grips with how they are going to deal with this long-term.”

So how can shippers build supply chains that are more responsive – and predictive – in the face of disruptions? It starts with analyzing your processes, tools and people to find vulnerabilities and opportunities for improvement. Here are three steps to help your supply chain stay strong when disruptions strike.

  • Map out your processes. While many businesses are looking to technology to improve supply chain performance, new solutions are destined to fall short if you don’t understand your problem first. Take the time to map every mode, carrier and handoff point across your supply chain. Many businesses skip this step, but it’s the best way to uncover bottlenecks, find new efficiencies and tailor your technology around your processes.
  • Adopt the right technology. If you’re still running your supply chain on spreadsheets, you’re not alone: 13% of firms still rely exclusively on Excel for supply chain management, according to American Shipper. But to stay resilient amid supply chain stressors, businesses need a more sophisticated approach. A centralized platform can help you gain end-to-end visibility across all shipments, allowing you to pivot quickly when needed and spot trends that can impact performance.
  • Build a high-functioning team. The logistics industry is built on relationships, which is why it pays to cultivate strong ones. A supply chain partner with a deep network can help you navigate hiccups more easily, whether you need spot capacity fast or want to explore alternative production sites.

Supply chain disruptions are inevitable, but they don’t always have to turn into supply chain crises. A proactive approach is the first step toward supply chain optimization, helping businesses handle whatever comes next.

As Peak Season Looms, Here’s How to Prepare

Halfway through 2019, ocean shipping costs have already inched up for businesses, with many carriers locking in rates $200 to $300 higher per TEU than the 2018 contract season. While those rate increases have left businesses less than thrilled, they could actually benefit organizations as the season ramps up by stabilizing schedules and reducing blank sailings that wreak havoc on shipping schedules.

The question of how much shipping will actually ramp up is still unanswered, however. Imports have leveled off compared with last year as businesses rein in restocking, while a number of factors could prompt demand and rates to rise or fall in the coming months:

  • Ongoing tariffs: After last year’s huge spike in shipping to beat impending U.S.-Chinese tariffs, some businesses are taking a conservative approach to shipping to avoid additional increases.
  • Reshoring: With many businesses moving operations to Malaysia or Vietnam, Chinese import volumes have dropped 5% – and rates could be the next to follow.
  • Fuel sulphur cap: Vessels are already coming out of service to prepare for the International Maritime Organization’s 2020 rule capping fuel sulphur levels. Depending on how import levels play out this summer and fall, those capacity cutbacks could boost spot rates.

 3 ways to prepare for the peak

 For businesses with large global supply chains, preparing for uncertainty all year round is essential – and particularly important during the busy peak season. Combining the right tools, people and processes can help organizations navigate fast-changing conditions, operate more efficiently and ensure they’re meeting customer expectations. Here are three areas of focus to keep in mind:

  • Gaining end-to-end visibility. Purchase orders are notoriously difficult for businesses to track, creating ripple effects down the supply chain when milestones are missed. By adopting technology that offers insight into each step of the production process, businesses can plan effectively during the busy months and seize opportunities for efficiencies, like opting for a less expensive but longer route when products are ahead of schedule.
  • Delivering as promised. If a business books 10 containers but only delivers three, the carrier might not be willing to book 10 again next time. Respecting advance notice polices and forecasting accurately can help businesses build stronger carrier relationships – and avoid having to scramble for more expensive alternatives.
  • Make exceptions the rule. Seventy percent of businesses have experienced a supply chain disruption in the past year, and the peak season makes organizations even more vulnerable. When exceptions arise, a centralized technology platform can help businesses identify the issue quickly and make the carrier or mode adjustments needed to keep things running smoothly in the future.

With the state of ocean freight still uncertain in 2019, businesses that invest in the right supply chain technology and expertise will be well-positioned for whatever peak season brings.

Competing in a Consumer-Focused Age with an Agile Supply Chain

From a new couch to a week’s worth of groceries, shoppers can summon nearly anything to their doorstep, local store or delivery locker with just a few clicks. Some of the most significant consumer changes impacting supply chains include:

  • Shifting demographics. While in-store purchases still dominate among shoppers of all ages, younger consumers are continuing to migrate to e-commerce, underscoring the importance of a strong omnichannel supply chain.
  • Shifting buying patterns. Emerging trends, including subscription boxes and purchasing large-scale items like furniture online, are creating complexity and forcing businesses to reexamine their last-mile strategies.
  • Shifting technology. In a role reversal from the last few decades, consumers are pulling ahead of businesses when it comes to technologies like artificial intelligence. These tech-savvy customers expect connected yet frictionless experiences from their brands – forcing many businesses to play catch-up.

Increasing agility through technology

Faced with these pressures, business leaders recognize that agility will be the key to success in the coming years. A KPMG survey found that 68% of CEOs believe that being slow to adapt to change will lead to obsolescence, while Gartner revealed that 82% of CEOs intend to change their business models by 2020 to stay relevant.

For supply chains, a technology-enabled approach is essential to drive agility and keep up with consumer demands. According to a World Economic Forum analysis, digital transformation will generate $1.5 trillion in value for the logistics industry over the next five years. Among businesses that adopt digital supply chains, executives report a 3.2% average increase in annual earnings – the highest ROI of any business function.

As supply chain executives recognize the importance of technology investment, an analysis conducted by AGL and Logistics Trends & Insights found that total logistics IT spending will rise 17% to $87.8 billion between 2017-2022. Yet a data-driven, agile supply chain remains a dream for many businesses, with a significant number of organizations still relying on Excel and email to manage complex supply chain functions. For organizations that master digital transformation in the supply chain, the benefits are big – faster time to market, increased efficiencies and better customer experiences.

Improving Supply Chain ROI in a Tough Tariff Environment

After duties on $200 billion in Chinese goods jumped from 10% to 25% earlier this month, businesses barely had time to blink before receiving news of yet another tranche of tariffs. These duties would cover $325 billion in goods, hitting the price-sensitive apparel sector particularly hard and taking a significant bite out of business’ bottom lines.

While no timelines are available yet for the new tariffs, NRF is expecting “unusually high” import levels in the coming months as shippers scramble to beat the duties. In its latest Port Tracker report, the organization estimated that TEUs would hit 1.9 million in May – the first time ever TEUs have risen to that level before July. That surge in shipments could lead to another chaotic peak season and higher prices for shippers, who are already paying 20% higher ocean contract rates than last year.

Some businesses may also turn to more expensive airfreight to get high-profit merchandise like electronics into the country faster. And once goods cross the border, tight warehouse capacity on the West Coast could push up prices as well, creating additional supply chain pain. For businesses grappling with these issues, a focus on optimization is increasingly critical. Here’s how combining a technology-enabled supply chain with the right logistics expertise can help deliver ROI that carries you through whatever comes next.

  • Find cost-effective capacity. With ocean spot rates already 40% higher than they were a year ago, sourcing affordable spot capacity to beat impending tariffs is likely to be a challenge once again during peak season. A centralized supply chain platform makes it easier to compare carriers and routes to find the most cost-effective solution, while an experienced supply chain partner with a deep logistics network can give you extra leverage in negotiations.
  • Shift your sourcing. As the cost of doing business in China continues to climb, many of AGL’s own customers are weighing the pros and cons of moving to neighboring countries. A supply chain platform that offers an end-to-end view, from production to final destination, lets your business compare suppliers and make the right choice based on production and logistics costs, vendor reliability, and more.
  • Check your classifications. For businesses that haven’t reviewed their classifications recently, the latest round of tariffs is a good reminder to keep current. A centralized platform makes it easier to review classifications in one spot to avoid penalties and identify opportunities to substitute products not subject to duties, if possible. A partner with customs expertise can help find additional ways to save time and resources, such as improving auditing procedures.
  • Automate routine activities. A more efficient supply chain starts with understanding all the touchpoints across your operations and seeing where there’s room for improvement. By managing every shipment in a single platform, you can uncover those efficiencies more easily. Technology that enables management by exception, rather than reviewing every single shipment, can also free up significant time for large global importers.
  • React faster to disruptions. Supply chain disruptions are inevitable, but being able to make adjustments on the fly can help keep issues from ballooning into disasters. For example, when faced with fast-approaching tariffs, a technology-driven supply chain can help you decide whether shipping via airfreight or paying additional duties will ultimately be less costly.

As shippers prepare for more tariffs and a potentially wild peak season, investing in effective tools, people and processes can help offset the impact to their operations and their bottom lines.