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Don’t Just Ride Out the Supply Chain Roller Coaster

Five big strategies to take back control.

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WHEN SUPPLY CHAIN issues first hit a variety of fields, the printing industry was not immune. And yet, customer expectations have been as demanding as they’ve ever been. It feels like we’re on defense more than offense, hoping our suppliers come through so we can keep our reputation well intact.

But, even amid the curveballs that come with an unpredictable supply chain, does it always have to be that way? Not necessarily.

We’ve had our fair share of supply chain “war stories” at ER2 Image Group – like when our Applied Surfaces division needed to source more than 1000 truck mirrors to use as a wall within a client’s headquarters, only to discover thousands of those very same truck mirrors were on backorder.

“When you’re told that, what do you do? You think about who else you know and what you need to make happen,” says Gary Schellerer, ER2’s VP/partner. “We ultimately found a great solution, but it warned us that we’d better think about the things we could employ at ER2 to get ahead of potential supply chain challenges and surprises, even before they happened.”

In the wake of that experience, Schellerer wasn’t content to simply take his chances on the hand the supply chain would deal him. Not as a second-generation printing business with 30-plus years under its belt.

So, in putting his head together with other ER2 team members, including his brothers Alan and Mark, he’s now utilizing several intelligent strategies at the company to bring control and consistency back to a volatile supply chain environment, such as:

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  1. Buy In Bulk While Raw Materials Are Available
    “If you know you’re going to use it down the road, don’t just invest in materials today,” says Alan Schellerer, VP/partner at ER2. “One of the best moves we made at ER2 was to invest in bulk. If you used those raw materials today, odds are you’re going to use them again and again for projects tomorrow, next week, and six months from now. You can save yourself a lot of headaches and stress knowing you already have the material in-house or stored nearby.”

    One example of this occurred when, with the COVID-19 virus sweeping the country, maintaining social distancing was paramount. And in any retail environment, how do you remind people in the store or waiting in line about social distancing? That’s right: floor graphics. As a result, ER2 increased its buying capacity and purchased as many floor graphics materials as possible.
  2. Lock In Costs as Soon as You Can
    With pricing changing as often as it does, it’s vital to ensure you’re selling things at the appropriate cost. That’s where maintaining strong vendor relationships couldn’t be more essential. Having the foresight to purchase more material in advance is terrific, but it’s also a matter of purchasing earlier in the chain, as Gary explains. “We’ve gone to the extent of calling manufacturers and finding out who they’re selling to so we can approach the distributor to buy the material before it hits our shop floor,” he says.
  3. Identify Product Alternatives
    “It’s easy to get wrapped up in an exact type of product you need on a job, but the reality is that even the highest quality printers can’t depend on just one option,” says ER2 VP/partner Mark Schellerer. “You have to ask, ‘What similar type of material has been manufactured that’s easily accessible and will provide the quality and durability our customer needs?’ Frankly, printers need to always think that way, whether there’s a supply chain issue or not.”

    In some cases, the printer may discover the alternative product material is even preferable to the original, so continuously exploring alternatives is vital. Regardless of whether a particular project calls for it at that moment.
  4. Build And Strengthen Vendor Relationships
    Maintaining close relationships with vendors couldn’t be more critical in a supply chain crisis, especially because that familiarity could pay off when it matters most.

    “If you’re in a crunch and need to pull off a small miracle, you’re thankful you have a vendor who knows your voice in two seconds when they pick up the phone,” says Gary. “It’s no coincidence that when time is of the essence and we need to accelerate a project, those vendors who know us are happy to accommodate. I think it would be infinitely more difficult for a printer to ask for a big favor of a vendor and actually get one, if it’s the first time those two parties have talked.”

    Instead of being satisfied with strong vendor relationships as is, printers have also taken to expanding the relationship by increasing the types of items they can purchase from each vendor, which obviously can only help deepen the printer-vendor connection.
  5. Know Your Limitations and Broaden Your Vendor Roster
    There’s an advantage in embracing the limits of who and what you have on your shop floor at any time. What products are going to be coming in the next week? In the next six months? Do you have the human and equipment capacity to plan so that bottlenecks can be avoided? In addition, can your primary vendor handle what’s coming down the pipe?

    Gary sees an opportunity to put more eggs in different baskets. “It’s great to have a go-to vendor. It really is,” he says. “But what if something happens to them that’s outside of their control? Options are needed. This is where broadening the number of vendors you have will increase your bandwidth in a phenomenal way.”

    And, undoubtedly, increase your state of calm in a supply chain environment that shows no signs of settling down.

Dan Gershenson is the CMO of ER2 Image Group, directing the marketing efforts of the print and environmental graphics leader into a new, exciting era for its brand. Dan specializes in brand strategy, content, SEO, social media, e-marketing, and new business development. He has been in the advertising and marketing space for more than 25 years, frequently speaking on the subjects of marketing strategy, social selling, entrepreneurialism, and reputation management. He is the co-author of the best-selling book, “Content Marketing for Local Search: Create Content that Google Loves & Prospects Devour.”

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