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How to Pass the Time While Your eCommerce Product’s Stuck in the Supply Chain

See something you want on your favorite ecommerce site, click “Buy Now,” and—presto!—it’s on your doorstep. That’s how we lived for years, ever since the rise of ecommerce services, ecommerce marketing, and ecommerce fulfillment that digital megacorp retailers like Amazon and Alibaba have pioneered and perfected. But now the bicycle store is empty, your new rug won’t arrive for months, the junker that is your used car is appreciating in value yet replacing the fob on your keychain costs $1,000+. What gives? The great supply chain disruption.

Between 2019–2020, online shopping surged by 20%. Which only makes sense: Those of us in well-off countries with disposable income were stuck at home during the pandemic. Out of boredom, we spent money—lots of it—not on services, but on stuff. All those products we ordered clogged up the global supply chains. Transit points like ports are now jammed. Ships are idling in harbors. Freight prices keep going up. Fears of inflation nip at the edge of our anxiety. And if you’re an ecommerce merchant mollifying customers who are demanding the product that you promised them—the product stuck in the supply chain—the news that these disruptions will persist into next year must land like a sucker-punch to the eternal optimism that sustains most entrepreneurs. So here are a few tips on how ecommerce brands can still be effective and efficient even when their merchandise is hovering in perpetual limbo. 

Communicate with Customers

Let’s say your customers are upset because the toys they ordered for their kids this Christmas months ago haven’t arrived. If you know that those toys are marooned in the hull of a cargo ship sitting off Long Beach harbor, tell that to your customers. That notification may not speed up the delivery process, but it will provide a measure of transparency that may assuage some of the ire of fruitlessly checking your proverbial mailbox every evening to no avail. 

Explain to them that so many of the items that people in the US use every day—microchips, cars, jeans, Lincoln Logs, Gerber baby food, Ray Bans—are made in other countries. They’re packed in ships the size of skyscrapers that offload into ports all across the world, where fleets of trucks and railcars convoy supplies to warehouses and distribution centers, and from there to the homes of concerned parents who are just trying to prop up the legend of Santa for one more year.

You don’t want to shift responsibility for delays onto a shipping system that’s so vast that it’s nearly abstract, but it’s a good idea to communicate the real-world reason for limited stock or logistics snarls. Speak with one voice as an ecommerce company, and post accurate updates on your site and across your social media so that your suppliers, customers, employees, and shareholders all know what’s going on, why it’s happening, and what you’re doing about it.

Assess and Address the Damage

If you’ve got logistics snarls, that means you need to work with a logistics expert to unthread those snarls. Hire or promote an ecommerce fulfillment or supply chain guru who can lead your disaster recovery team in developing a crisis management plan, which might include some of these action points:

  • Analyze your financial vulnerabilities now and in the future.
  • Strategize how to minimize mounting fees and surcharges.
  • Identify other ways to transport your product to your customers. 
  • Estimate how much you’re able to sell so you don’t over-purchase.
  • Centralize the information you can gather about your supply holdups in one place.

That list could go on and on. But the point is to have people in the room who can audit all the data on the pain that the supply chain disruption is wreaking on your bottom line and develop tools that prevent workflow inefficiencies from leeching any more money out of you.

Identify Backup Suppliers

Depending on the complexity of your supply chain, it may be worth investigating all the tiers of suppliers in your network. Ask yourself these questions: What do your suppliers’ plants make? Where are their plants located? What are their current inventory and staffing levels? Which ones are delivering products late—or delivering products that are damaged and degraded? 

Gauge which of your suppliers are bleeding cash or close to shuttering, and run the numbers on whether extending their credit can shore up profitability for everyone over the long term. At the same time, diversify your supply base so that whenever a disruption on this scale occurs again, you can at least receive some goods while others are lingering in transit.

Keep Calm and eCommerce On

For many ecommerce merchants, the supply chain disruption is a crisis—but a crisis that can be put to good use. Your first order of business is to make sure that business is still coming in. Reassure your customers. Coordinate with your suppliers. Forecast your cash flow impact. But also take this time to network with new carriers, fix weak points in your operation, and figure out if you can reduce product packaging so that you have fewer costs and more robust delivery options when the global supply chain, mercifully, resets to normal.

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