Navigating Global Logistics

April 6, 2021

I went grocery shopping last week, and I was disappointed to see that my favorite soda wasn’t on the shelf. But I moved on, figuring that they’ll have it in stock again eventually. I didn’t give a lot of thought as to how that would happen at the time.

Most of us don’t have to think about logistics much, but for John Janson and Mitch Kinney at SanMar, planning and executing the shipping and storage of goods is what they live and breathe every day. While logistics affects everyone eventually, it’s an issue of particular importance in the world of promotional apparel.

“Supply chain execution defines who we are as in industry,” states John, Senior Director of Global Logistics at SanMar. Sourcing and distribution are critical to keep business moving, from the big distributor to the two-person shop down the street.

The global pandemic and a vessel stoppage in the Suez Canal last week have brought new focus onto the issues and challenges around getting goods from one place to another. “People are finally talking about supply chain,” notes Mitch, SanMar’s Manager of Domestic Logistics. “There’s a national spotlight on it now. It’s been a crazy year.”

Logistics are making headlines because consumers are noticing that products are not always on the shelf and shipping is taking longer than it used to. While a certain e-commerce giant has set the standard of customer expectation in shipping times, even they struggled to meet that bar in 2020.

That’s what we’re seeing as consumers – but what’s going on behind the scenes can often seem mysterious. It’s not such a mystery for John and Mitch.

The Problem of Space

The word we keep coming back to is “capacity,” which in this case means space for shipping both internationally and domestically. SanMar receives goods from 22 different countries, while port congestion and space on the ships themselves throttle ocean-borne shipping capacity. Once product is received in the United States, capacity is still an issue due to driver availability and high demand.

“The consumer market is still very strong,” Mitch says, but a shortage of drivers and new limits on who can be on the road place additional constraints on a system that was already taxed before last year. Every aspect of shipping is in flux, from global shipping lanes to cross-dock to simple parcel delivery. Everyone is competing for the same space, and competition is fierce.

“For the first time, shippers were saying ‘We know you have business for us, but we don’t want it right now,’” recalls John. Costs went up significantly, and sometimes products were simply not picked up at all, leading to blown-out budgets and missed deadlines for many.

The Importance of Being Nice

“People are starting to feel like things are getting back to normal,” reflects Mitch, “but for logistics these are challenges that are going to linger through the rest of 2021 and even into next year.”

The most successful strategy for SanMar calls back to one of our most basic values. “It’s the strong relationships this team has built up over the years with our providers that has gotten us through this,” says John. “And it’s those same relationships that will lead us out of it.” Companies who are just now just starting this work of establishing deep business relationships with carriers may be too late – at least for the current situation.

It’s also important to explore new ways to ship more expediently, such as late-night deliveries. With 90% or more of SanMar’s business coming from other businesses, we rely on carriers like UPS to do most of the heavy lifting, but as customer expectations continue to shift we also have to be ready to adapt.

Planning ahead, Mitch notes, is as important as ever. In reflecting on the lessons we’ve learned over the last year, he comes back to a SanMar favorite. “Be nice,” he says, “because you never know what’s going to happen.”

Just like magic, I saw yesterday that my favorite bottle of soda was back on the shelf, and I happily got a few…just in case. It’s people like Mitch and John, whose job it is to navigate the tricky waters of supply chain and capacity, who make that magic possible.

I’m thankful that they’re here to keep the wheels turning and the trucks on the road.