SUPPLY CHAIN WAS A LIFE-SAVER, BUT DON'T REST ON YOUR LAURELS

The food distribution supply chain is often taken for granted or overshadowed by the splashier activities taking place in stores. But it once again proved its value and mettle in its response to the recent Gulf Coast hurricanes.While governmental agencies at the local, state and federal level were roundly criticized for their lack of preparation and tardiness in responding to Hurricane Katrina, retail

The food distribution supply chain is often taken for granted or overshadowed by the splashier activities taking place in stores. But it once again proved its value and mettle in its response to the recent Gulf Coast hurricanes.

While governmental agencies at the local, state and federal level were roundly criticized for their lack of preparation and tardiness in responding to Hurricane Katrina, retail distributors like Wal-Mart and Home Depot got considerable credit for being able to jump immediately into the breach and meet the pressing needs of storm victims.

Associated Grocers, Baton Rouge, La., with its proximity to the hardest-hit areas, was also able to provide aid to its independent retail members well before the cavalry arrived. For a detailed report on how this wholesaler planned for and responded to Katrina and Rita, see Page 48.

Associated Grocers and Wal-Mart have developed sophisticated strategies for responding to natural disasters that leave their stores without power and their customers in critical need of life-saving staples like water, ice, canned goods, batteries and the like. In the case of Katrina, they were able to address its exceptionally widespread and in some cases catastrophic consequences.

This ability to turn conventional practices around on a dime to handle sudden and unforeseen circumstances is a tribute to the resiliency and strength of the food distribution supply chain. Some of it is based on technology but often it's a matter of sheer human grit. In cases where Associated Grocers was not able to communicate with its stores, the wholesaler sent many counselors into the stricken areas to assess the needs of stores.

"We were the first responders, no question about it," said Lewis R. "Randy" Fletcher, vice president, logistics and supply chain management, Associated Grocers. "We sent trucks out the day after the storm while there were still tropical force winds in a lot of areas, knowing that the winds would subside by the time we got there."

The other side of the challenge for Associated Grocers was making sure vendors were able to deliver sufficient quantities into the distribution center. That required exceptional communication with trading partners, flexibility, and a willingness to stretch DC receiving to a 24/7 operation for several weeks.

Yet, as impressive as these efforts were, food distributors should not rest on their laurels. The challenges to the supply chain in the coming years are bound to get steeper, putting greater strain on existing systems. Besides hurricanes and earthquakes, there is now the potential threat of a bird-flu pandemic, not to mention the continuing threat posed by terrorism.

What this means is that food distributors should be focused on new technology that can substantially bolster the supply chain, such as radio frequency identification, data synchronization, automated picking systems and flow-through warehouse management systems.

Besides the business benefits these technologies offer, they may also prove invaluable in meeting unexpected hits to the supply chain. RFID, with its ability to track product movement without human intervention, may be especially apt.

Food Marketing Institute's Productivity Convention/Exposition this week in Orlando, Fla., is a good place to pick up information on new supply chain technology.