Logistics, the Supply Chain and Bears, Oh My

You don’t hear much about the supply chain these days. Lingering inflation, interest rates and the economics of electoral politics have pushed the logistical snafus that were one of the early legacies of Covid-19 out of the spotlight.

But it was not too long ago that the supply chain was the boogeyman of economic recovery and a topic of incessant debate, discussion and consumer despair. And while there certainly were serious problems in the movement of goods by land and sea in the aftermath of the global pandemic, “the supply chain” became the explanation why the “new normal” never really felt all that normal.

But those days are past. To be sure there is still a shortage of long-haul truck drivers and the flaws underlying the global shipping container system have not been adequately addressed, consumers have moved on from worries about whether they can buy toilet paper or cleaning products when needed.

As a case in point, I offer a personal experience.

A few weeks ago, I ordered a custom-made T-shirt from an online merchant. The order was placed on a Monday and less than four days later the shirt arrived. While this will never rise to the level of miraculous or even particularly noteworthy, it shows how far we have come from those dark days where container ships were stacked up outside of major ports waiting for the chance to unload and simple commodities became harder to get than a good parking space at a shopping mall the Saturday before Christmas.

What makes my T-shirt experience noteworthy, at least to me, is not just the speed with which the order was filled but the fact that before the order was placed the T-shirt did not even exist. In the space of four days a shirt was created, processed, shipped and delivered.

The ease in which the product was purchased – without having to leave the house or even get up out of a comfortable chair – explains why the supply chain crisis hit consumers so hard and caused a ripple effect of disruptions across the economy.

It wasn’t just the longer wait times and depleted merchandise stocks or the logjams at ports or entry and the lack of truck drivers lined up to deliver the goods. The shock of the supply chain problems questioned our basic assumptions about how the world works. Consumers have become so used to the quick turnaround of the just-in-time warehousing and delivering systems set up by companies focused on being lean and nimble profit centers that any disruption at any point in the chain upset assumptions about the way we expect things to work.

The ability to order a range of items from your kitchen table and have them delivered to your front door in days or even hours has become fundamental to our identities as consumers. It is part of the world we know. And in the instant-gratification world we live in, delaying that gratification for even a short time is unwelcome.

We take it for granted that online shopping is as certain as water flowing when we turn on the tap or the lights coming on when we flip the switch. And when that certainty is upended, it challenges our sense of normality and, more importantly, our expectations.

Put it in that context, it is easier to see why despite evidence to the contrary, consumers feel uncomfortable about the state of the economy. Then again, a freshly made T-shirt might make things a bit more comfortable.