The Importance of Supply Chain Decisions

There is a close connection between the design and management of supply chain flows (product, information, and funds) and the success of a supply chain. Walmart, Amazon, and Seven-Eleven Japan are examples of companies that have built their success on superior design, planning, and operation of their supply chain. In contrast, the failure of many online businesses, such as Web- van, can be attributed to weaknesses in their supply chain design and planning. The rise and subsequent fall of the bookstore chain Borders illustrates how a failure to adapt its supply chain to a changing environment and customer expectations hurt its performance. Dell Computer is another example of a company that had to revise its supply chain design in response to changing technology and customer needs. We discuss these examples later in this section.

Walmart has been a leader at using supply chain design, planning, and operation to achieve success. From its beginning, the company invested heavily in transportation and information infrastructure to facilitate the effective flow of goods and information. Walmart designed its sup­ply chain with clusters of stores around distribution centers to facilitate frequent replenishment at its retail stores in a cost-effective manner. Frequent replenishment allows stores to match supply and demand more effectively than the competition. Walmart has been a leader in sharing infor­mation and collaborating with suppliers to bring down costs and improve product availability. The results are impressive. In its 2013 annual report, the company reported a net income of about $17 billion on revenues of about $469 billion. These are dramatic results for a company that reached annual sales of only $1 billion in 1980. The growth in sales represents an annual com­pounded growth rate of more than 20 percent.

Seven-Eleven Japan is another example of a company that has used excellent supply chain design, planning, and operation to drive growth and profitability. It has used a very responsive replenishment system along with an outstanding information system to ensure that products are available when and where customers need them. Its responsiveness allows it to change the mer­chandising mix at each store by time of day to precisely match customer demand. As a result, the company has grown from sales of 1 billion yen in 1974 to almost 1.9 trillion yen in 2013, with profits in 2013 totaling 222 billion yen.

The failure of many online businesses, such as Webvan and Kozmo, can be attributed to their inability to design appropriate supply chains or manage supply chain flows effectively. Webvan designed a supply chain with large warehouses in several major cities in the United States, from which groceries were delivered to customers’ homes. This supply chain design could not compete with traditional supermarket supply chains in terms of cost. Traditional super­market chains bring product to a supermarket close to the consumer using full truckloads, result­ing in very low transportation costs. They turn their inventory relatively quickly and let the customer perform most of the picking activity in the store. In contrast, Webvan turned its inven­tory marginally faster than supermarkets but incurred much higher transportation costs for home delivery, as well as high labor costs to pick customer orders. The result was a company that folded in 2001, within two years of a very successful initial public offering.

As the experience of Borders illustrates, a failure to adapt supply chains to a changing environment can significantly hurt performance. Borders, along with Barnes & Noble, domi­nated the selling of books and music in the 1990s by implementing the superstore concept. Compared with small local bookstores that dominated the industry prior to that, Borders was able to offer greater variety (about 100,000 titles at superstores, relative to fewer than 10,000 titles at a local bookstore) to customers at a lower cost by aggregating operations in large stores. This allowed the company to achieve higher inventory turns than local bookstores with lower operating costs per dollar of sales. In 2004, Borders achieved sales of almost $4 billion, with profits of $132 million. Its model, however, was already under attack with the growth of Amazon, which offered much greater variety than Borders at lower cost by selling online and stocking its inventories in a few distribution centers. Borders’ inability to adapt its supply chain to compete with Amazon led to a rapid decline. By 2009, sales had dropped to $2.8 billion; the company lost $109 million that year.

Dell is another example of a company that enjoyed tremendous success based on its sup­ply chain design, planning, and operation but then had to adapt its supply chain in response to shifts in technology and customer expectations. Between 1993 and 2006, Dell experienced unprecedented growth of both revenue and profits by structuring a supply chain that provided customers with customized PCs quickly and at reasonable cost. By 2006, Dell had a net income of more than $3.5 billion on revenues of just over $56 billion. This success was based on two key supply chain features that supported rapid, low-cost customization. The first was Dell’s decision to sell directly to the end customer, bypassing distributors and retailers. The second key aspect of Dell’s supply chain was the centralization of manufacturing and inventories in a few locations where final assembly was postponed until the customer order arrived. As a result, Dell was able to provide a large variety of PC configurations while keeping low levels of com­ponent inventories.

In spite of this tremendous success, the changing marketplace presented some new chal­lenges for Dell. Whereas Dell’s supply chain was well suited for highly customized PCs, the market shifted to lower levels of customization. Given the growing power of hardware, custom­ers were satisfied with a few model types. Dell reacted by adjusting its supply chain with regard to both direct selling and building to order. The company started selling its PCs through retail chains such as Walmart in the United States and GOME in China. It also outsourced a large frac­tion of its assembly to low-cost locations, effectively building to stock rather than to customer order. Unlike Borders, Dell is making a significant effort to adapt its supply chain to changing times. It remains to be seen whether these changes will improve Dell’s performance.

In the next section, we categorize supply chain decision phases based on the frequency with which they are made and the time frame they take into account.

Source: Chopra Sunil, Meindl Peter (2014), Supply Chain Management: Strategy, Planning, and Operation, Pearson; 6th edition.

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