Whack-a-Mole: How Distributors are Navigating a Messy Supply Chain

Supply chain leaders at distributors are busier than ever these days as they scramble to address a litany of issues. Here’s what they’re saying about the crisis and how they’re dealing with it.
supply chain blog

When the massive container ship Ever Given got stuck in the mud outside the Suez Canal at the end of March, it became the poster child for the ongoing supply chain crisis.

Yes, the vessel’s two-week immobility slowed the movement of goods around the world, but that grounded ship was a relatively small snarl for distributors, who have been dealing with all manner of supply chain slowdowns this spring.

“We’ve been faced with a myriad of issues that have popped up, and it’s been a whack-a-mole situation,” says Shane McCarthy, SVP supply chain, product management and marketing at Chicago-based industrial distributor Lawson Products. “You address one thing and something else comes up. It’s a challenging time.”

McCarthy addresses these issues in the recent article, Supply Chain Snarls Threaten to Temper Strength of Economic Upswing. (This article is for MDM Premium subscribers; log in to your subscription to read the full report. Not a subscriber? Click here to learn more about joining MDM Premium.)

McCarthy’s lament is echoed by Brian Bushelow, the supply chain director for Raleigh, North Carolina-based HVACR distributor ACR Supply. Like Lawson, ACR is dealing with much more than headaches caused by a clogged shipping lane on the other side of the world.

“There are always issues, but none that have slowed down the supply chain to the same degree as recent weeks and months,” Bushelow says. “Mostly, you have one issue at a time, and that stuff can be dealt with. In today’s world, several things are happening simultaneously.”

‘A connected world’

The slowdown of goods from manufacturer to distributor to end-user began, of course, when COVID-19 began ravaging the world’s economy in the spring of 2020. As suppliers enacted safety measures such as social distancing on their production floors, output decreased. At the same time, demand for everything from PPE to HVAC systems to JanSan products soared.

As demand for certain products increased, the global supply chain experienced clogged shipping lanes due to all manner of consumer products making their way to U.S. ports, further exacerbating the situation. Crowded ports slowed the arrival of goods, and the ongoing truck driver shortage impacted the next leg of those products’ journey.

Not even domestic sourcing has been a cure-all. Some Made in the USA products rely on certain components from overseas, such as the caps on spray cans. And in recent weeks, cybercrime and a cracked interstate bridge caused further delayed the movement of goods around the country.

Distributors are responding as best they can, of course. They have adjusted their forecasting, increased their spot buys and even fine-tuned their pricing to ensure that their customers have the products they need to operate as the economy returns to normal.

Supply chain professionals like Bushelow and McCarthy note that this current crisis has elevated their presence in distribution C-suites; gone are the days of their departments working behind the scenes. Moreover, it’s highlighted the importance of maintaining close vendor-customer relationships.

“There’s probably always going to be something disruptive since we live in such a connected world,” McCarthy says. “It certainly highlights the need to stay in close communication with suppliers and customers.”

To learn much more, including comments from distributors such as Grainger, MSC Industrial and Fastenal, access the full text of Supply Chain Snarls Threaten to Temper Strength of Economic Upswing by logging into your MDM Premium account. If you’re not a subscriber, click here to learn more about joining MDM Premium.

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