Driving Surety of Supply in Retail Sourcing using Blockchain

A paper on the application of Blockchain technology in retail supply chain

Surety of supply in the global supply chain can be interpreted as the ability to ensure product availability at the right time and right place to meet a planned customer demand. In the context of sourcing, it starts from identifying and working with the right suppliers in an origin market, manufacturing products to scale and plan, and getting the products to the destination market on-time. This is easier said than done due to the inherent complexity of a global supply chain: The lead times are longer, inventory demand and the corresponding production is subject to disruptions, supplier compliance and risk needs constant monitoring and finally, the total cost of inventory may end up being high due to inventory pile-up (possibly from late delivery or early replenishment or larger order sizes) at the destination DCs and Stores.

The Sourcing value chain is deemed inefficient if it is unable to identify the right suppliers for the products that retail buyers want to sell to consumers. Sourcing teams also need to ensure that Suppliers manufacture and deliver these products at the desired quality and target shipping dates. While inefficiencies can happen due to several factors that need to be individually analyzed and addressed, there is an opportunity to look at the supplier base broadly as a collective network of willing partners who want to add to and gain value from the relationship. This requires a decentralized look at the management of the value chain and at the same time, enabling a collaborative participation of stakeholder partners across the value chain.

The problem of UNMET DEMAND (and hence potential lost sales and customers) due to inability of the sourcing supply chain to ensure surety of supply is driven by the following broad factors:

  1. Supplier Readiness
    a. manufacturing production problems
    b. factory problems due to compliance, safety and labor
    c. raw material problems
    d. shipment problems
  2. Supplier Availability
    a. product supply locked with a few
    b. sudden customer demand spikes forcing change in order strategy
    c. cost and lead time considerations

The resultant impact of this supplier delivery performance not meeting the desired needs is the following:

  1. Service loss/short-term sales loss in destination markets: Immediate sales forfeited due to deliveries not received on time from suppliers for open purchase orders.
  2. Increased inventory in Import DCs (and subsequently in Warehouses/Stores): Delayed product deliveries leading to piled up stock or faster replenishment cycles to meet shifting demand.
  3. Unplanned expedites resulting in high cost of logistics: Faster shipping methods employed (air vs. ocean) to get products faster to meet the at-risk commitment (in-store date).

In effect, we have an opportunity to better manage our network of suppliers to handle demand variance and supply disruptions so that we can MINIMIZE the downstream effects it has on increased cost of inventory, supply chain disruption and lost sales.

Solution Design:

Instead of handling the problems of supply after the fact, we can look at a proactive way of handling demand-supply considerations. By means of a Blockchain model, we can attempt to identify demand (as related to buy plans and their corresponding Purchase Orders) and propose a way for an extended network of suppliers to participate in meeting retail demand before the point of failure.

The design of such a business process system could look like the below model. This is one of several variations we can achieve in modeling a supplier-participation network:

A simple Blockchain model for distributing and sharing PO Demand

What happens within the Blockchain?

We will use an example derived from the model to explain how a Blockchain works in managing the PO optimization process.

Supplier Diversity:

Let us assume that a buy plan was created to direct import women’s top of a particular style and product specifications. This buy plan is vetted by a Sourcing Manager who will then publish the buy plan for review by the Supplier Base. Let us assume the supplier base to consist of 10 suppliers. Of these 10 suppliers, 2 are new suppliers (Supplier D & E) and 1 is a Trader (Supplier B).

Supplier Selection:

The Supplier Base reviews the buy plan and submits a quote detailing their capabilities in manufacturing the women’s top according to the defined specifications. Let us assume the quote was supplied by two existing suppliers (Supplier A and C), Supplier B and Supplier D. The total of 4 suppliers are now under consideration for securing the PO contract to manufacture the product for the retailer.

At this stage, let us assume Supplier D was rejected. The Sourcing Manager approves Supplier A and B and puts Supplier C on a waitlist. As explained earlier, a waitlisted supplier is someone who has submitted a compelling quote but isn’t the top choice for being approved immediately for securing a PO contract. However, Supplier C will be used as a risk-mitigation option by being allowed to participate in the PO process provided priority has been given to Suppliers A and B to secure their orders.

Once the supplier negotiations and agreements are completed, it is assumed that Suppliers A, B and C are now ready to do business with the retailer.

Blockchain Ledger, Transaction Chains and Visibility:

The PO ledger is the critical element of the blockchain and defines “what” is being exchanged and updated between the various nodes (participating entities) of the blockchain. In this example, we have 4 nodes in the blockchain — the Sourcing team, Supplier A, Supplier B and Supplier C. The nodes can be expanded as desired and it assumes that all nodes receive the most recent and updated copy of the PO ledger at all times. The complexity of letting Suppliers A and B participate first in securing orders can be enabled by controlling the node participation within the blockchain (It is to be noted that the concept of an open, distributed and completely decentralized blockchain is ideal for cryptocurrency transactions and has been generally modified to be more conducive to business environments by Blockchain service providers like IBM).

The PO ledger can be defined to have any fields considered as valuable to the node network in making the right transaction decision in the Blockchain. It is suggested to have at least the following entries:

  • Buy Plan ID: The ID of the buy plan as registered in a retailer’s system.
  • Total PO Qty: The total order size desired for the products under the buy plan (in the above model, the ledger is simplified and assumes a single product as part of a buy plan. For multiple products within a buy plan, we can create separate ledgers per item under the same buy plan ID so that suppliers can bid per item to secure the PO contract). For the women’s top, let us assume the total PO Qty to be 100.
  • PO Offer Qty: The offer qty is the latest snapshot of what order quantities are available still for suppliers to secure the PO for. Initially, the Total PO Qty and the PO Offer Qty will be the same (100 in this case). If we assume that Supplier A has secured the order contract for 30 (explained further below), the remaining on offer PO qty is 70. This is open for Suppliers B and eventually C to take.
  • Target In-Store Date and Target Port-arrival Date: The in-store date and the destination port arrival dates are guidance data that will enable Suppliers to understand what is the expected timeframe for manufacturing and shipping the accepted PO offer quantities to the retailer. The benefit of tracking this within the ledger is that it allows for real-time visibility of order related parameters (another benefit of the Blockchain that will be leveraged in this model). For any reason, if there was a PO revision that updated the in-store dates, it is clear to the nodes in the Blockchain what the expected new dates are. It is however important to note that a supplier should go by the PO contract (outside of the ledger) to comply by the required in-store date. The ledger will only have the latest snapshot of the in-store dates for the offer quantity.
  • WIP (Work in Progress) Daily Order Quantity Shipped: This is a daily updated snapshot of the total order quantity shipped out by each individual supplier to the retailer. This quantity is the fulfilled order quantity that the supplier is sending via freight to the destination port.
  • WIP Daily Order Quantity Produced: This is a daily updated snapshot of the total order quantity produced by each individual supplier to the retailer. This quantity has been manufactured in the production lines of the supplier’s factories and are ready for quality checks and shipping.
  • When the retailer publishes the PO ledger with the offer quantity, suppliers get to secure the order quantity that they can produce. This will be closely monitored offline so that suppliers do not promise more than they can deliver in securing the PO. Let us assume that Supplier A has initiated a TRANSACTION to offer 30 quantities of the women’s top. If they are the first bidders in the Blockchain, they will be offered the PO contract accordingly. This can happen either through an intervention or without the intervention of an offline team at the retailer. Once the transaction is secured, a CHAIN link is formed between the retailer and Supplier A for the order quantity of 30. The PO offer quantity in the ledger is now updated to 70.

Transaction Privacy:

Let us assume Supplier B has taken up 60 and Supplier C eventually takes up the remaining 10 on offer. This will close the transaction in the blockchain for the buy plan ID. Further modifications to the PO will update the ledger accordingly. In order to secure privacy of the transactions between the retailer and each individual supplier, it is possible to given the retail sourcing team node full visibility into all the transactions while letting each supplier node only see what they have contracted to offer.

WIP Risk Monitoring and Mitigation:

Work in Progress (WIP) tracking can be done easier through the blockchain as we will have a continuous snapshot of changes in the production and shipping lines for the supplier. By building additional top up logic through algorithms to process this WIP data, we can determine at near real-time any potential risk that each supplier poses to fulfilling their PO commitments. Let us assume that Supplier C is at risk of maintaining the PO commitment as the algorithms (or manual review) has identified that two of the factories are running at full capacity and missing production targets while the Supplier itself is going through a financial trouble in securing raw materials in time.

If the algorithms fire up and determine that supplier C is at risk of fulfilling the PO for the desired in-store date, the retailer can take a proactive view into the order commitment with Supplier C. In this case, the retailer will update the ledger to remove the chain link with Supplier C for the order quantity 10 (or any other updated snapshot number) and release that as an Offer quantity for the remaining suppliers (A and B) to take up if they can. If it is possible for either Supplier A or B to take up the additional order quantity, then the retailer has an opportunity to avoid the risk with missing order shipments that may have resulted in a lost sale potentially in the stores. If Supplier A or B cannot take up the additional offer quantity that the retailer has given, we can release a new supplier node into the Blockchain assuming there is a possibility for a Domestic Importer or an agency to take up orders with a faster lead time and production turnaround.

Why Blockchain?

Do we really need a Blockchain model to achieve this Supplier-PO management opportunity. The answer is in-between a Yes and a No. However, there is a stronger case to utilize the power of Blockchains to create open networks of business relationships. What Blockchains give is the opportunity to devise working business models that take away the overpowering role of a central administrative agency in monitoring and dictating the rules of engagement for the flow of transactions (e.g. money, products and resources of any kind) between participating entities. In the financial world, crypto-currencies have challenged the hegemony of central banks for enabling the free flow of money between two transacting parties. In the business world, Blockchain has a greater application in the supply chain space where FLOW of information, money, assets and resources happens all the time. In many cases, businesses are tempted to have a centralized role in monitoring this ecosystem while it is very much possible that by letting the supply chain participants have greater visibility into the flow of asset resources, there is better participating to meet targets and avoid risk.

According to IBM that has developed a Blockchain platform — “A blockchain network for business is collectively owned and operated by a group of identifiable and verifiable institutions, such as a business or university, for example. It’s a permissioned network, where the participants are known to each other. Blockchain technology underpins the bitcoin network, but the bitcoin network is non-permissioned, which makes it poorly suited to business use cases. It has no identifiable ownership structure and is operated by a community of participants that may or may not be identifiable.”

Blockchains have the power of a distributed network providing data sharing, replication and synchronization across various entities participating in the network. This makes information management and decision making easier.


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