January 7th, 2010 by Alex Coté
Retailers and their suppliers are starting to report the final numbers from the 2009 holiday shopping season. Initial sales reports look promising – a welcome sign of relief for the top line after a year of uncertain consumer demand. As telling will be the bottom line numbers due out at the end of the month (as part of annual reports). While it’d be presumptive to suggest we’ve found a way to get an early read on such figures, we’ve long suspected that the supply chain payments may just offer such an early indicator. And today, with fresh data in hand, we’re releasing the latest Cortera Supply Chain Index numbers…and perhaps a sign of what those year-end reports may hold.
If you haven’t been following our previous posts on the subject, let’s take a quick step back and explain how and why we believe such data might be connected. Our monthly SCI tracks the payment activities of 350,000 manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, retailers, services, and transportation companies. Historically, the months leading up to the holidays (October, November) have shown a spike in late payments, as businesses ramped production and took on increased inventory – along with related near-term debt. Predictably, payment rates speed up and return to normal in January as cash flows through the entire supply chain.
But 2009 presented a very different picture. First, the arrival of *the spike* in slowing payments occurred earlier than expected. Then, equally unexpectedly, the speeding of payments and cash flow typical of a January return started to occur during the height of the season. As we noted then, one possible explanation was that the numbers simply supported what most retailers were reporting in the media: the 2009 inventory strategy would be to cautiously stock shelves early with little expectation for replenishment once those supplies were exhausted. In other words, a cautious inventory and production strategy would ensure that retailers and suppliers weren’t left holding the bag, as had been the case in 2008.
Did the supply chain just conclude a happy and healthy holiday season? That question remains unanswered, if only temporarily. What is promising, although irregular, is that flow of cash through the supply chain seems to be beating the historical odds.