In the time of COVID-19, the already challenging consumer world is seeing expectations heightening, says Tom Goldsby, Haslam Chair of Logistics at the University of Tennessee.
In the first 18 months of the COVID-19 outbreak, e-commerce exploded in volume due to increased at-home shopping of those used to online purchasing, and to the large number of people experiencing virtual buying for the first time. Goldsby estimates that as much a five years’ worth of shopping took place in the first year and a half of the pandemic.
However, sales of holiday-season merchandise this year are likely to be negatively affected by the pandemic, he says. “Consumer behavior is spinning rapidly, and our supply chains are unable to keep up. They’re stretched around the world, but there are delays at ports and difficulty in finding warehouse and transportation workers. I think it's understandable why there would be fear and anxiety. I just hope that we don't see the panic buying to the scale that we saw directed toward so many grocery products a year ago, but there's no doubt that we have tremendous challenges that we need to try to overcome.”
Goldsby thinks it will be well into 2022 before supply chain snarls and gaps are worked out. Returned merchandise is one of those gaps — but a tremendous business opportunity as well. Because of increased e-commerce, returns have shot up. Consequently, interest in reverse logistics is at a “fever pitch.” But too many companies do it poorly. Even Amazon, which has designed efficient forward-deployment systems from fulfillment centers to consumers, is ill-equipped to handle the onslaught of returns.
“How can we effectively get that stuff back into our inventory for subsequent sell?” Goldsby asks. “I think there's tremendous opportunity for managing the physical flow, but also just getting so much smarter about finding the business opportunity — the gold in the garbage, if you will.”
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