Never a dull moment in supply chain and logistics these days

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor · September 1, 2020

With the turning of today’s calendar, we now find ourselves on September 1, the beginning of the ninth month in a year unlike any other, to be sure.

The reasons for why 2020 is different than any other year are wide and varied, considering the COVID-19 pandemic, the related economic fallout from it brought, as well as the uneasy rise in civil unrest in various parts of the United States, too. And, let’s not forget that it is an election year, too, perhaps the one with the most on the line, regardless of political affiliations.

Over the course of the year, or at least going back to mid-March, at the onset of COVID-19, things have happened so quickly and changed on the fly, it almost reads like fiction. This includes things like the inventory shortages for consumer staples such toilet paper and paper towels, dry goods, among other things such as dairy products

Also, many manufacturing facilities shut down, in the early phases of COVID-19 which resulted in manufacturing output falling off a cliff (it is subsequently rebounding now), as well, some sectors, like automotive and airlines, to be sure, along with myriad services-focused businesses, too.

One sector that clearly has not slowed down amid the confusion is e-commerce, and for good reason. Over the course of the pandemic, with so many people hunkered down at home and sheltering-in-place, e-commerce retail sales are skyrocketing. That is highlighted by how many estimates place non-store, or e-commerce, retail sales, at around 30% of total retail sales. A staggering statistic, if there ever was one, given the high level of growth over a relatively short period.

And the parcel duopoly of UPS and FedEx has certainly, not to mention Amazon, DHL, and many regional last-mile players have certainly benefitted from this situation, especially UPS and FedEx, whom each have issued Peak Season surcharges, resultant of the overload of demand they are now seeing.

The United States Postal Service (USPS), of course, on the minds of many people these days, as the days leading up to Election Day lessen. But this is, by no means, a political column. USPS has also implemented a Peak Season surcharge, albeit temporary, but it speaks to the demand that is out there.

There are so many moving and shifting parts these days within supply chain and logistics on a modal basis, too.

Trucking capacity remains tight, of course, while volumes see fluctuation, and spot markets have reaped some of those benefits, through higher rates, as shippers need options. And rail carload volumes have been largely down but are inching up higher on a sequential basis, of late, which speaks, in part, to the ongoing manufacturing recovery over the last three months or so. Intermodal volumes are approaching pre-pandemic levels, which also bodes well for demand and an improving (hopefully) economy.

Another thing for supply chain stakeholders to monitor is the current state of national infrastructure funding. The September 30 deadline for the current five-year surface transportation authorization, the FAST (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) Act is rapidly approaching, and, at this point, it is pretty clear that Congress is not going to join hands and get a new bill passed between now and then. It looks like we could be knocking on the door of an interminable series of short-term continuing resolutions, and we all know how “fun” those can be.

Again, these are not normal times, for the supply chain and logistics sectors, not even close, really. But, at the same time, they are the cards we are currently being dealt so we all need to take a seat at the table and play our hands. Regardless of how the cards turn up, it remains more than clear that there is never a dull moment these days.

September 1, 2020