Supply Chains

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.

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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4 Responses to Supply Chains

  1. Pingback: 1981–1985: Lammas Bookstore – The T-Shirt Chronicles

  2. Hal Davis says:

    This crisis may lead to major disruptions and changes in many supply chains worldwide down the road.

    More immediately:

    U.S. Food Supply Chain Is Strained as Virus Spreads
    Disruptions are expected in the production and distribution of products like pork, and localized shortages could occur.
    [From the story:]
    Smithfield Foods became the latest company to announce a shutdown, announcing Sunday that it would close its processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., after 230 workers became ill with the virus. The plant produces more than 5 percent of the nation’s pork.

    JBS USA, the world’s largest meat processor, closed a plant in Pennsylvania for two weeks. Last week, Cargill closed a facility in Pennsylvania where it produces steaks, ground beef and ground pork. And Tyson halted operations at a pork plant in Iowa after more than two dozen workers tested positive.

    The parts of the food system that will suffer the worst disruptions are the ones dependent on heavily consolidated supply chains that employ large numbers of people, Mr. Girotra of Cornell said. [Karan Girotra, a supply-chain expert at Cornell University]


    • Indeed. I’m also interested in the supply chains for various pharmaceuticals and medical equipment. For instance, at least one key component of the COVID-19 test is manufactured in China. What happens to such products during a trade war, or when the home country needs them so much they aren’t available for export?


      • Hal Davis says:

        More than the COVID-19 test is affected.

        As coronavirus spreads, reliance on foreign sourcing strains pharma supply chains

        With India on lockdown and China still ramping back up production, experts worry about the pipeline for importing critical drugs into the U.S.

        From the story:

        80% of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) are produced abroad, mostly from China and India. In 2018, the U.S. imported 95% of its ibuprofen from China, in addition to 91% of the U.S. supply of hydrocortisone, 70% of its acetaminophen, 40% to 45% of its penicillin and 40% of its heparin.

        Vitamin C and B12 are also ingredients sourced from China, said Nada Sanders, a supply chain management professor at Northeastern University. “India cannot make a lot of its antibiotics and a lot of its medications if it doesn’t get sources from China,” she told Supply Chain Dive.

        India’s government restricted export of some of its manufactured drugs and ingredients, including paracetamol (acetaminophen), antibiotics like tinidazole, erythromycin and neomycin, antiviral medication acyclovir, progesterone, and vitamins B1, B6 and B12.

        India exports about 20% of the world’s generic medications by volume. Without enough in the pipeline, a shortage could begin this fall.


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