When the shelves — any shelves, in any store — are fully stocked, I seldom think much about how the products got there.
When I can find everything I need, I seldom think “What if I couldn’t?” More often I gaze at something I don’t need — pecans, candied ginger, a frozen dinner — and wonder if it’s worth the splurge. Usually the answer is no. (I do sometimes make exceptions for McVitie’s biscuits and Reese’s peanut butter cups.)
At down-island Cronig’s, all the shelves in all the aisles are invariably stocked to the verge of bursting, which is why I marveled the other day when I went looking for beans and rice: those shelves were almost as bare as Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard.
So I’m pondering supply chains. There’s a lengthy Wikipedia entry on the subject, but here’s the basic definition: “a system of organizations, people, activities, information, and resources involved in moving a product or service from supplier to customer.”
I became hyper-aware of supply chains (without knowing the term) in the 1980s, as the book buyer for Lammas, D.C.’s feminist bookstore. Books did not magically appear on the shelves: I had to place orders with publishers, distributors, and sometimes individual writers. Selling space was limited (about 400 square feet total) and the store was undercapitalized (meaning that bills had to be paid out of revenue), so ordering took strategizing. Guesstimating how many copies we’d sell in a month, balancing this title against that one, ordering a book from a distributor when we were on credit hold with its publisher — that sort of thing.
I did pretty well if I do say so myself, but sometimes a customer would come looking for a title that wasn’t on the shelf. Then a sort of triage kicked in: Is this book something we usually stock, meaning something we can easily tack onto a regular order? If not, might it be available from another bookstore in the area? If neither of the above, would the sales price come close to covering the cost in time and money of procuring it?
What I learned in those years has come to the fore in recent weeks, but it’s never been far from my mind in all the years I’ve lived on Martha’s Vineyard. It spikes whenever someone complains that we can’t buy this on the island, or that (often gasoline!) costs too much, and especially when the complaint segues into conspiracy theories about how someone or other is making a bundle off the lack of this or the high price of that.
The Vineyard is a small market. Economies of scale are rarely possible, which is a big reason we’ve been largely spared the mega shopping malls and humongous chain stores that have destroyed other small-town economies. At the same time, thanks to our lopsided seasonal economy, commercial rents in prime locations went through the roof long ago, which is why so many stores are shuttered in the off-season: in summer the living isn’t exactly easy, but in winter business isn’t nearly brisk enough to stock the shelves, staff the shop, and pay the rent.
Not to mention that the goods carried by those seasonal shops are generally high-profit-margin items that year-rounders don’t need and/or can’t afford.
The real wonder is that so many Vineyard stores do manage to operate year-round, and to keep the shelves pretty well stocked in this very trying time. Which is why I’m blogging about the supply chains that are largely invisible in less trying times, the “system[s] of organizations, people, activities, information, and resources involved in moving a product or service from supplier to customer.”
Especially the people. Without the people harvesting, processing, packing, and transporting the food, placing the orders, stocking the shelves, and staffing the registers, the shelves would be bare indeed.