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For a supply chain to truly function well it needs to be flexible, operating under a ‘bend but don’t break’ principle that allows it to scale to needs and to be maneuverable enough to escape blockages and delays along the route. Much like a muscle, however, this is fairly unlikely to simply come naturally. It takes preparation, training, and stretching to build a muscle into something with the capacity and flexibility to go through rigorous moments of endurance or sprinting. 

This analogy begins a follow-up report on the Supply Chain USA Virtual Summit 2020 by Alex Hadwick, editor-in-chief for Supply Chains with Reuters Events, which presented the online event in partnership with ABBYY, a digital intelligence company.

Hadwick discovered that numerous experts from across the supply chain space agreed that critical lessons must be learned from the disruption of 2020 as well as broader industry trends.

“Visibility now underpins the capacity of a supply chain to react to change, strengthens its ability to provide strong customer service, and allows more flexible supply chains and the introduction of automation,” Hadwick writes.

“By building a strong and systemic approach to the view over the supply chain then we can begin to train to become more effective in handling the new environment. That environment is changing rapidly and e-commerce growth is causing supply chains to move faster, but they have to balance the demands with sustainability goals, both of which require the right reporting capabilities in order to succeed.”

Catch-up mode

Interestingly, among the notions presented at the summit was that while the global pandemic ushered in new, strengthened e-commerce normal, the industry is still catching up to global demand. 

“Even before COVID, we’ve had significant disruption over the last few years that I think is going to continue to change the way we do business for the future,” mentioned summit participant Robert Sanchez, Chairman & CEO of Ryder System. “It’s the three suspects that you all probably know: e-commerce, driven by Amazon; it’s asset sharing, driven by Uber; and it’s the next generation vehicle – the electric and autonomous vehicle, that is really driven by, I would say, Tesla.”

The silver lining may be that industry players now have their radars up for disruption. The days of, say, a Crown Books pooh-poohing a threat by an upstart like Amazon may be as over as … well, Crown Books.

As Ravi Dosanjh, head of Strategic Programs at Intel said to bring us full circle to Hadwick’s opening: “The muscles we build in supply chains during the numerous disruptions come into play now, and I think it sounds obvious, but you need to enable the right muscle, the right capability at the right time. That’s something that doesn’t happen by accident.” 

Ed Barriball, a partner with McKinsey & Company, continued the flex fest by first noting, “You need to bring together a mosaic of data,” from external providers, and from within that is merged “to start to get an idea of who I’m actually buying from, or my suppliers are buying from. 

“Once you have all that information, understand where your vulnerabilities and risks are in the supply chain. And for a lot of folks, I think that’s a new muscle to be working.” 

Visibility is key 

Another area of agreement among the experts, according to Hadwick’s report, was the need to institute real-time visibility in the supply chain.

“I think it’s critical when you think about supply chain visibility technology, that it’s providing visibility across all nodes. That enables network collaboration and exception management,” said Dave Belter, VP & GM of Global Transportation Management, Ryder System.

However, more must be done, added Russell Felker, CTO of GlobalTranz: “I feel like in some ways, we’re at the point that electronic medical record systems or electronic health record systems were at toward the end of the 1990s and into the early 2000s, where they were standing up all these things to capture data, but had no formality of how they talk to each other.

“Both of your doctors might have a way of keeping your data electronically, and they had no way to get it to each other, and so they would print it and fax it. We’re kind of at that point where we have these systems that exist and that capture pieces of information, but they don’t have a clear method of handing information off, maintaining chain of custody, and maintaining that visibility [and] the sanctity of the information, as it traverses.” 

That is why Belter finds it critical that supply chain visibility technology must be provided “across all nodes. That enables network collaboration and exception management.”

Taking a hard look at your entire move through the supply chain will uncover areas for improvement—and ultimately greater market share, according to the experts.

“Where we see a significant demand is around what’s called process mining and discovery, where you actually analyze event logs from various disparate systems of record and visualize process behaviors as they occur,” said Andrew Pery, a process intelligence expert at ABBYY.

Such examinations can help you identify areas where, for instance, more automation would be beneficial or risks and potential legal entanglements can be avoided, Pery noted.

Which brings us to the last mile

 “The last mile is the most complex piece of the puzzle in the supply chain—because it’s the end part, everything has to work upstream for that delivery to go perfect,” said summit participant Erik Caldwell, president of the Last Mile at XPO Logistics.

One thing that is becoming obvious, according to Tom Galluzzo, founder, and CEO of IAM Robotics, is that there will not be enough flesh-and-blood workers to maintain a flawless last-mile experience. 

“The reality is that it’s going to continue to evolve toward more automation, more force multipliers being used,” Galluzzo says in the summit follow-up report. “Whether that’s warehouse execution systems continuing to get smarter and optimizing the way internal operations are run within supply chain buildings, or actually leveraging robotics to do some of the physical moving material, that’s all going to continue pretty strongly over the next five to 10 years.”

Please sustain me

Hadwick goes on to cover sustainability in the supply chain, which, given the pressures of last-mile, micro-fulfillment, and a customer base that seems to expect goods ordered today yesterday, one helluva challenge. 

Among the ideas presented at the summit that could offer a solution is moving supply chain facilities closer to the customers. As Michael Murphy, executive vice president of Development at industrial real estate developer CenterPoint pointed out, the giant e-commerce facilities are less often feeding stores directly and more often shipping goods to smaller distribution outlets.

“Moving the supply chain closer to the consumer is a huge priority right now for a lot of organizations,” noted IAM Robotics’ Galluzzo. 

In conclusion …

Pery, the process intelligence expert at ABBYY, contributes the summit follow-up’s conclusion: “It’s evident no matter which stage of the supply chain logistics providers serve, having good process workflow and visibility into the specific events, activities, and people involved with each step is critical to successfully completing the last mile and delivering a positive customer experience.”

He and Hadwick before him take deeper dives into each of the sections presented above. If you would like to read their full report (for free!), visit


The Future of Retail – Is It Touchless?

Covid has made all of us more aware of what we touch in public spaces. And, as health concerns over Covid have now been with us for many months, new behaviors have become ingrained habits that are probably here to stay.

It’s no use trying to swim against this tide. Every retailer must take a fresh look at how their customers prefer to shop and make it easy for them to do so. Or they will risk losing their customers to competitors who give them what they want.

For most businesses that means an increasingly digital and multi-channel operation.

Pure play digital retailers have had the advantage in our new Covid world. They offer the ultimate touch-free solution and have established fulfillment routes, although some have struggled to cope with huge volume increases. High sales during the pandemic period have helped Amazon double their net profit this year to $5.2 billion and the recent Quarter 2 sales have been higher than the Christmas quarter of 2019.

Most digital-only retailers consider their biggest challenge to be the “final mile”, as it represents the most expensive and complex part of their process. If you turn this view on its head and look from the customer perspective, the biggest issue with online shopping is the first mile of the returns process. Whether you’ve got to go to a parcel office or designated drop off point, it’s just not as easy as ordering your items. Smart retailers are increasingly offering a returns pickup service. Physical retailers have the advantage of stores that create the opportunity for a convenient returns process for their customers and the possibility of an extra sale from the additional footfall for the retailer.

However, retailers that started with physical stores tend to be on the back foot when it comes to touchless and digital customer journeys. Some physical retailers have buried their heads in the sand and hoped the fad for touchless would pass over. These businesses are now struggling to remain viable as online research and purchase is an increasingly attractive customer proposition. Most store-based businesses offer a touchless route, however, yet only the sharpest have a truly integrated operation that allows customers to seamlessly move between multiple channels; whether instore, online, or via a call center.

So where should retailers focus to align themselves with entrenched touchless trends?

1. Payment instore is moving away from the system of customers queuing to pay a colleague at a till. The use of contactless cards, rather than chip and pin or cash, has become customers’ preferred option. It saves operational time instore as the payment itself is quicker and it reduces time spent handling hard cash.

But the real transformation in payment has been because of technology that helps skip the line altogether. Self-checkout tills have been around for years and are now being superseded by customer apps that enable self-scan and payment from your own device or a handset. Retailers are now juggling with a mix of payment methods that require new instore furniture, a revised front-end layout and different colleague cover models. The customer experience you deliver during payment creates a lasting impression that will influence where the customer chooses to shop in the future.

2. Digital fulfillment via stores, whether kerbside collection or picking up a Click and Collect parcel instore, is a moment of truth that really matters to busy customers expecting an efficient experience. It took me 45 minutes to retrieve my grocery order by kerbside collection at one store, and I couldn’t just drive away as I had already paid for my shopping. The store’s errors were not having enough colleagues to match the number of booked pickups and the collection point being a long way from their storage bay, so it took ages to wheel the order over. They sound easy to avoid, yet these seemingly simple to solve problems happen more often than you’d hope. Follow the simple rules of match your resource to the order numbers, keep the storage and collection points close to minimize travel time, and make sure your colleagues are trained on your process and you’ll drive both online and instore sales

3. Map all your customer journeys and make sure there aren’t any missing. For returns, for example, does the customer have multiple options or are you restricting them to just returning to one physical location? Many retailers have realized they need new customer journeys and Covid has spurred them on to make changes in weeks that were previously under consideration for months and even years. Don’t get left behind because there will always be a competitor willing to look after your customers better than you do.

4. Review every stage of every journey and check it is smooth for your customers and as efficient as possible for your operation. It is likely that you will have work to do to integrate your physical and digital routes, which is a driver for digital investment. KPMG’s research over the pandemic period for its Enterprise Reboot report found that 59% of executives say the pandemic has created the impetus to accelerate their digital transformation.

5. If you invest in technology to help your touchless journey, whether that is new kiosk payment or RFID stock systems to reduce counts instore and help you publish accurate stock numbers to customers shopping online, make sure you consider how your operating model needs to flex to accommodate the technology. For example, adding self-checkout tills reduces the cover needed on traditional tills, yet you must decide the model you will use to support customers at self-checkout tills when they need help. Dodgy scales, systems that can’t cope with coupons and difficult to use customer interfaces all drive increased requirement for colleague interventions and annoy customers. Consider too, how you target and incentivize your store teams to make sure they drive the right behaviors. If helping a customer with an online order doesn’t help towards a team’s sales target or returns are netted off the daily sales total, the store team is unlikely to go out of their way to make things easy for the customer.

Touchless retail is already here. How you adapt to it and evolve your operation as customer habits and preferences continue to change will determine how successful you are.


Article by Simon Hedaux, founder and CEO of Rethink Productivity, a world leading productivity partner which helps businesses to drive efficiency, boost productivity and optimise budgets. For more information see