Recently, I was at my local grocery store for my weekly shopping trip and found myself in the packaged salads section. My habit is to look at the best before dates and select the one that is the furthest future date because I believe it to be the freshest and is least likely to be thrown away. Am I alone in this habit or thinking?
While this is easy for packaged/processed items with Best by Dates, it is not as easy for bulk, loose, or field packaged products. For these items, you will find me examining clamshells of strawberries for mold or leakage, shaking a cantaloupe (not quite sure why!), or squeezing an Avocado. Identifying freshness can be an art and science for many, and it continues to be of high importance for consumers.
The current high inflationary period we are experiencing has changed what are the top shopping considerations for customers. In a Sept 2022 Deloitte article, they maintain that “perishability is still relevant but now more of a pocketbook issue. Nearly eight in 10 (78%) consumers consider food waste, likely out of a desire to minimize spending. Lower-income consumers and those using food assistance programs care the most about food waste as a purchase driver—again, suggesting it is a response to higher prices.”
Fresh supply chains have been on a journey to identify and design the root causes of short shelf life and high food waste. I was fortunate to spend several years of my career focused on this very objective, managing complex operations while at Walmart, and I saw the same complexities at SpartanNash, a leading food distributor. While working on this at Walmart, we created a hypothesis: if highly perishable produce is moved through a supply chain faster, it will improve the customer freshness perspective because the produce will be of a higher quality. A fairly simple and straightforward hypothesis but one that would require field-to-fork design and collaboration. The same “If” statement was repeated for a host of financial and operational metrics.
The final design reduced the total order cycle time (order to receipt), changed order frequencies, changed order volumes, added an upper node, and implemented a cross-dock solution. This design was implemented as a proof of concept, a pilot, and eventually cleared for full deployment. There were design principles used as the solution was built:
- Any design element must enable an improvement in freshness (shelf life) that the customer would receive.
- Any design element must utilize existing technology, assets, and infrastructure.
- There must be an end-to-end functional agreement of the design, its impacts, and benefits.
The following will delve into some of the intricate farm-to-table challenges that supply chains face across sourcing, demand planning, procurement and inventory management, transportation, and warehousing.
Sourcing – Consumers expect more fresh products to be available year-round vs. seasonally
Sourcing produce has become complex as consumers demand more seasonal produce year-round. The blackberries you eat today could be from Mexico, and the ones you buy next week could be from California. Sourcing is not only from traditional farms but also from controlled environment agriculture (e.g., greenhouses, vertical farming), and the ability of a supply chain to integrate into these multiple origin types in a dynamic mode is imperative.
Examples of sourcing complexities are:
- Managing sourcing transitions from Import to Domestic to Locally sourced.
- Identifying the appropriate use of secondary suppliers for supply gaps.
- Daily monitoring of the beginning and end of harvesting in each growing region.
- Use of multiple suppliers due to harvest yield variability.
- Consistent product specifications for the consumer
A successful fresh food supply chain requires strong collaboration between suppliers, distributors, retailers, and logistics partners. Miscommunication or lack of coordination can lead to delays, overstocking, or understocking. Employing technologies like collaborative platforms and supply chain management software can enhance communication and coordination.
Demand Planning – How fresh is forecasted differs from how it is sourced and fulfilled.
Accurate forecasting is the cornerstone of a successful fresh food supply chain. Yet, the inherent variability of factors such as weather conditions, crop yields, and consumer preferences makes this a formidable challenge.
Examples of Demand Planning complexities are:
- Managing the transfer of demand to multiple vendor SKUs throughout the year
- Incorporating the impact of Lost Sales due to shrink and warehouse quality rejections
- Applying appropriate seasonality and regionality
- Identifying and utilizing the impacts of cost fluctuations, price elasticity, and promotions
- Incorporation of unstructured data to improve demand-sensing activities
Supply chains must invest in advanced data analytics, demand sensing capabilities, and sales and operations planning capabilities (S&OP) to anticipate demand fluctuations and optimize flow accordingly.
Inventory Management – What capabilities are needed to exceed customer service levels and maximize freshness?
Many types of produce are seasonal, which can lead to uneven supply and demand. Additionally, these seasonal items have different growing regions where the transition between each region is a delicate dance with Mother Nature.
Balancing supply and demand across different seasons and regions requires end-to-end visibility, risk management, and modeling of all variations: transportation modes, sourcing origins, growing region transition delays (or accelerations), and cost fluctuations. Additionally, supply chains may need to adapt to sudden changes in weather conditions (e.g. forest fires, heat waves, heavy rain, and hurricanes), which can impact harvests.
Examples of Inventory Management complexities are:
- Managing order cycle parameters to limit shrink and maintain expected costs
- Balancing supply, demand, and quality during sourcing transitions
- Inventory strategies that incorporate date-sensitive inventory intelligence
- Allocation based on freshness intelligence, excess, and limited stock
- Different channels for flowing product (stocked vs. stockless vs. hybrid)
- Lead time management which incorporates different transportation modes, origins, and known delays.
Matching supply with demand is a delicate equilibrium. Inaccurate order management can lead to overstocking, resulting in wastage, or understocking, leading to dissatisfied consumers.
Transportation and Warehousing – Optimizing limited drivers, throughput, and storage capacity is a necessity.
The way produce is handled and packaged greatly impacts its freshness. Rough handling during transportation can lead to bruising and damage, accelerating spoilage. Transporting perishable goods across various terrains and distances poses significant challenges. Delays can compromise freshness, while rough handling can damage the produce. Implementing efficient routing, utilizing temperature-controlled vehicles, and employing cold chain monitoring technologies ensure that products reach their destination in optimal condition.
Examples of Transportation and Warehouse complexities are:
- End-to-end cold chain compliance, monitoring, and execution
- Capacity and throughput for seasonal programs
- Utilizing FEFO (First Expired, First Out) vs. FIFO (First In, First Out) where no durable life date exists
- Optimizing driver cost (team vs. single) vs. speed/service/waste trade-off
- Proper load securement, case handling process, material handling equipment, and storage
The ability of a supply chain to identify in near time a case, pallet, or lot that has suffered a catastrophic cold chain impact increases its ability to quickly respond. Building this type of resiliency and risk management is not easy but is essential to today’s modern fresh supply chains.
Fresh produce has a limited shelf life, often measured in days rather than weeks. This places tremendous pressure on fresh supply chains to minimize delays, disruptions, and damage at any stage of the supply chain. From harvesting to distribution, any of these can result in a significant loss of product quality. Modern fresh supply chains must invest in streamlined customer-centric processes, efficient and rapid flow, and real-time tracking to minimize time-related challenges.
Historically a supply chain is successful when it can control its operating costs and grow top-line sales. Today we are seeing examples of supply chains becoming a company’s competitive advantage when it is empowered to champion the customer experience. Once this is done a company must ensure it has customer-centric capabilities, technologies, and processes and couple it with an appropriate operating model and cost structure.
Delivering the freshest produce to consumers is a complex undertaking that demands a strategic approach to overcome numerous challenges. From time sensitivity to temperature control, and supply chain visibility to regulatory compliance, each obstacle requires careful consideration and proactive measures. By leveraging technology, effective communication, and robust quality control processes, fresh food supply chains can navigate these challenges and ensure that consumers continue to enjoy the highest quality produce on their plates.
Supply chains can rise above these challenges by embracing:
- Digitally enabled demand and supply synchronization
- Predictive analytic models and algorithms, utilization of structured and unstructured data
- Proactive risk management across Tier 1 to Tier 3 suppliers
- Routine optimization of end-to-end flow, inclusive of the supplier’s supply chain
- Mastering cold chain compliance, monitoring, and execution
- End-to-end visibility and collaboration
In doing so, they not only meet consumer expectations for freshness but also contribute to a sustainable, efficient, and resilient food supply chain ecosystem. Digital decision automation platforms like Solvoyo propel the fresh food supply chain industry toward a future of excellence and delight for consumers worldwide.