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  December 27th, 2017 | Written by

The Great Recession, Ecommerce, Innovation, and Disruption

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  • The years following Great Recession could be described as a golden era for logistics.
  • Asian growth, globalization, and China’s market liberalization transformed supply chain and logistics.
  • The next few years will see an evolution of the sector rather than a big-bang revolution.

When Transport Intelligence was established in 2002, the global economy was still coming to terms with the fall-out from the dotcom bubble and, of course, the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center the previous year. The US and Europe were struggling with recession, with Germany and France amongst the hardest hit. Prospects of future economic growth were gloomy.

However, the fallout from the recession was short-lived, especially when compared with the prolonged market weakness experienced following the Great Recession of 2008. In fact the following few years were what could be described as a golden era for the logistics industry. Asia was driving economic growth and globalization was gathering pace helped by China’s rapid market liberalization. These forces were about to transform the supply chain and logistics industry.

Back in 2002, one of the first issues we wrote about was Deutsche Post’s plans to buy the remaining 25 percent of DHL it didn’t already own. The company had already acquired some big names in the industry, such as AEI, and would go on to buy Exel and countless other well-known brands as it became a major player in the consolidation of the sector.

In fact the market moved rapidly from one characterized by multiple medium-sized operators to one in which a few companies came to dominate, at least in terms of scale, building out global networks and multiple capabilities.

The intervening period has seen companies emerge from seemingly nowhere to achieve prominence and then be acquired themselves by rivals on an even more meteoric rise. French logistics provider, Norbert Dentressangle, was one such example aggressively buying in the UK and US markets, before being bought by new-kid-on-the-block, XPO.

TNT went from being a market leader in the early 2000s, receiving plaudits for the way it combined express, mail and logistics functions, to being broken up and then acquired by players such as CEVA and FedEx. At the same time US giants, UPS and FedEx, have both gone from being largely US focused express parcels carriers to being global providers of parcels and logistics services.

During this time many companies were brought to their knees by overly ambitious acquisition strategies. Even DHL felt considerable pain when its decision to buy Airborne Express in the US back fired, costing the company billions. Only the size and success of the rest of its business allowed it to cope with such losses.

Unfortunately for the industry, the recession of 2008 (the effects of which are still being felt) brought to an end the plentiful supply of money which had been available to make acquisitions.

Even more importantly, international shipping volumes fell off a cliff plunging the air cargo and sea freight sectors into crisis. Although an initial bounce back came quite quickly, all markets subsequently stagnated and it took years to regain the ground which had been lost.

Following globalization, the next big demand-side trend to impact on the industry was ecommerce.

After a false dawn in the late 1990s, shopping on the internet eventually became mainstream and this created major opportunities and challenges for the logistics and express sectors. Multi-channel retailing became an essential revenue stream although it has taken many years for operators to adapt to the new demands which B2C deliveries have placed upon them.

Now, however, the zeitgeist for the second half of this decade is “innovation and disruption.” The talk is all about the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and the impact that it will have on the underlying demand-side trends as well as the opportunities it will provide for logistics and express operators themselves. Development of autonomous and electric trucks, 3D Printing, robotics in manufacturing and in warehouses, drones, blockchain and the Internet of Things have resulted in media attention for the industry as never before. However, there is also the risk of over-hyping these innovations, leading to one senior logistics executive asserting, ‘The only disruption we’re seeing is in Powerpoints.

Perhaps an alternative characterization of the state of the industry would be that disruption and innovation is occurring; it is just that it is being assimilated into logistics companies’ existing operations and technology offerings. Consequently the next few years will see an evolution of the sector rather than a big-bang revolution. Undoubtedly there will be change, and those companies who cannot adjust to the new environment will drop out of the market. However, for most of the largest providers at least, the new technologies offer another way of differentiating their products and services; of driving down costs and of creating efficiencies in their networks. Looking ahead over the next fifteen years of Ti’s life, the technologies which we are analyzing on a daily basis today will become mainstream and, in a positive way, forgotten. A new generation, for example, will grow up regarding ‘smart-contracts’ as the norm and will have little understanding or concern for the blockchain technology which underpins them. Real time shipping quotes will be standard, supply chain visibility complete.

Will the largest shipping, air cargo and logistics companies be owned and run by Amazon or Alibaba with vast, automated 50,000 TEU ships crossing the oceans as some analysts predict? Possibly. However, the future is likely to be much more unpredictable than this, as demand-side trends transform, and potentially eliminate, global supply chains. 3D Printing and automation could structurally change production costs allowing manufacturing to take place in Europe and North America reducing the importance of Asia-Europe and transpacific goods flows. Mega-cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America may create their own supply chain ‘eco-systems’, local production serving local markets.

Whatever the future holds, the need for high quality research and analysis will always remain. Changing times will mean that only the most agile and adaptable companies will succeed with business models based on knowledge capital and its application. Over the next fifteen years we at Ti look forward to providing logistics and supply chain companies around the world with the tools necessary for them to achieve these strategic goals.

John Manners-Bell is CEO of Transport Intelligence.