US & Global Economic Impact Analysis and Forecasts

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Is This the End for Lean Inventories & Just-in-Time Deliveries? Producers & Distributors Avoided Inventory Buildups During COVID-19 Shut Downs but Many Still Struggle to Catch Up

The just-in-time, or lean inventory, method that spread throughout the world over the past few decades met its match with the COVID-19 crisis. While lean inventory methods help factories, distributors, and retailers minimize costs, they place potential strain on the factories and logistics companies that must make and distribute the goods just-in-time. Avoiding excess inventory and/or carrying costs is one the main principles of JIT systems.

Producers, distributors, and retailers canceled orders amid production shut-downs and sharp shifts in consumer behavior with an uncertain outlook around March 2020. Then consumer shifts to cooking and working from home led to high demand for a wide variety of goods (e.g., items such as toilet paper and flour packaged for retail rather than foodservice, as well as electronics, lawn and garden products, and home improvement materials).

However, the modern global production and distribution system relies on predictability and isn’t built for surprise surges in orders or rapid shifts in demand – it’s more streamlined to deliver a steady level of orders via the “just-in-time” methods.

The fact that the JIT system can’t handle a huge crisis is one of the known drawbacks, but no one expected a large hit to multiple supply chains at once, and any system would face strains in such circumstances. Typical challenges for the JIT system usually involve natural disasters such as hurricanes that results in closed roads and factories for a few days.

However, this era has put unprecedented pressure on the system, after a global pandemic -- and the widespread understanding that this won’t be the last one – and the extended supply disruptions (e.g., hurricanes, polar vortex, floods, factory closures, and a container ship blocking the Suez Canal) and the downstream effects of port backups and trucking delays.

Is this the end of lean inventories? More companies – especially those burned by high profile issues such as computer chip shortages and volatile lumber pricing – are rethinking the process and reconsidering how their supply chains might look going forward. Maintaining larger stocks of inventories might cushion against supply shocks and pricing volatility, but requires investment in warehouse space and related operations and more focus on potential challenges (or a greater tolerance for risk of overbuying or waste).

If JIT required data to get the right supplies to arrive at the right time, so does maintaining enough stocks to hedge challenges without overshooting.

This shift is something that will play out throughout the economy. Freedonia analysts will continue monitoring the effects of adjustments made to supply chains and will continue to consider how future adaptations to logistical processes could work in various industries.

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