Stack of boxes in the back of a delivery truck

Thirteen-year-old Rose has spent most of the quarantine hanging out in her small bedroom, located in the corner of her family’s small house in a small Florida suburb.

But her world has been quite big, thanks to the internet, and in between visiting with her online pal in Africa and making TikToks, she has been happily shopping online.

Package delivery left at the front door

Since she mostly buys stuff at a cost of two or three dollars per item, she receives lots of packages. And because each of those packages can be tracked, she knows generally where each one is at any given time. In this way, she has learned how to find China, Taiwan, and Oregon on a map. She has also learned the terms “in transit,” “processed,” and “dispatched” - the vague, indefinite estimates that some shipping companies use to placate waiting customers. Because Rose is 13, the location of each package has taken on gargantuan significance. She might die, she assures anyone who will listen, if her stuff doesn’t come today.

Never, except perhaps each Christmas Eve, have consumers been so anxious about when their packages will arrive. Some, like Rose, are just impatient. But others are waiting for necessities. Medications, toilet paper, cleaning products - did I mention toilet paper? - and other basic essentials for comfortable daily living have customers literally waiting on their porches for deliveries. Small ticket items have never been easier to track - and customers rely on that knowledge to plan their lives. Detergent arriving tomorrow? I can wait to do laundry. Allergy meds arriving today? I can postpone that trip to CVS. But not everything arrives on time. Most online purchases come with a caveat - deliveries might take longer than usually due to COVID-19 demands.

If customers are worried about shipments, then so are the businesses doing the shipping. Predictable human behavior explains many of the shortages the nation has experienced during recent months - there was never a real reason to think the world would run out of toilet paper until a few people became worried anyway and alerted their neighbors. By the way, bidets are making a comeback!

But there are product shortages that have experts concerned. The availability (or scarcity) of large quantities of  protective personal equipment - masks and gloves, for example - can be a matter of survival. Certain food staples provide needed nutrition to low-income families.

Empty grocery store shelves

Production and inventory only solves part of the problem. Some experts believe better supply chain tracking might help solve the rest. And while tracking packages has long been an aspect of modern life, doing it on a mass scale using the cellular IoT gives the process an accuracy and expediency not fully appreciated prior to living with coronavirus.

Some of the most alarming shortages have yet to happen and might not be noticed until July 4, when the grill masters start looking for the juiciest burgers to char. The Centers for Disease Control estimates over 5,000 workers from over 100 meatpacking plants around the nation have been sickened by coronavirus, resulting in a severely reduced ability to process meat. Analysts predict the situation could lead to the worst meat supply chain disruption in memory. Already, grocery stores have fewer selections of meat and poultry, and butchers often have no idea when shelves will be restocked with a particular product.

But problem isn’t just related to lack of product or supply chain glitches. It’s exacerbated by the consumer’s need to know a product’s origin and travel time. People are understandably concerned about food-borne illnesses and the threat of COVID-19 traveling through the food chain. Not knowing where and when that pork chop was created can cause anxiety - and prevent sales.

Enter E2E Tracking

Delivery person wheeling packages on a dolly

Enter E2E - end-to-end tracking, or the ability to seamlessly follow a product from origin to destination. The information is specific rather than vague, and utilizes GPS, cellular data, and the increasingly ubiquitous Internet of Things.

“New supply chain technologies are emerging that dramatically improve visibility across the end-to-end supply chain.”

According to Quantzig, a global data analytics service provider, creating a food supply chain with unified management and logistics can increase transparency and foster faith in the nation’s shipping and delivery systems. Translation: Customers demanding more cans of Lysol might stop freaking out if the store manager can tell them with authority exactly when the next shipment is coming, and how much Lysol will arrive.  

Quantzig became so concerned about potential supply disruptions that the firm conducted a series of case studies to find out how the pandemic is affecting businesses worldwide, and featured one of its clients - a meat processor - to demonstrate its point. By transforming the client’s previously unstructured delivery system into a more predictable, organized process, Quantzig was able to help the company save money, have more accurate inventory counts, and better predict product demand, which helped stabilize the company and allowed executives to worry less about its survival and more about planning for the new normal. 

Deloitte Canada, one branch of the international consulting and auditing firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, predicts the pandemic will “finally force many companies, and entire industries, to rethink and transform their global supply chain model,” according to a recent post. “It has already exposed the vulnerabilities of many organizations, especially those who have a high dependence on China to fulfill their need for raw materials or finished products.”

The current situation might also expose the United States’ reliance on China as a trading partner. Deloitte Canada has even issued checklists designed to help companies cope with the fear and threat of COVID-19 without sacrificing the shipping or receipt of supplies. The advice ranges from educating employees about COVID-19 symptoms to planning ahead for plant and factory closures.

“It’s in transit from Omaha, whatever that means.”

All of that is helpful, analysts say. But they emphasize that digital supply networks (DSNs) are the only way to ensure the stability of supply chains.

“COVID-19 illustrates that many companies are not fully aware of the vulnerability of their supply chain relationships to global shocks,” warns Deliotte Canada. “Fortunately, new supply chain technologies are emerging that dramatically improve visibility across the end-to-end supply chain, and support companies’ ability to resist such shocks.”

Pile of delivered packages left outside.

Such lofty predictions and explanations don’t matter to Rose, who continues to wait impatiently for her next t-shirt. “It’s in transit from Omaha,” she said recently. “Whatever that means.”

If tracking a single purchase means so much to one little girl who has too much in her closet already, imagine what it means to a system of supply and demand that literally feeds, medicates, and clothes the world. Predictability could be a game changer.

For now, let’s hope those burgers for the Fourth of July cookout are still grazing peacefully in a field. It’s an improbable scenario, and one that’s impossible to confirm. But by next year? Hey, it’s a thought.

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