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Supply Chain Reaction: Flexibility Will Help Meet Spikes in Demand

The contents of Abby Lipski's go bag Photo by Abigail Lipski


As the COVID-19 pandemic led to shutdowns and stay-at-home orders across the country, “panic buying” led to widespread shortages of not just hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, but also toilet paper and paper towels. Grocery store shelves that were usually brimming with Charmin and Bounty were suddenly barren.

Nichalin Summerfield, an assistant professor of operations and information systems in the Manning School of Business, researches supply chain management. She says consumer goods manufacturers like Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark could add a little more flexibility in their production lines to meet future spikes in demand.

“Toilet paper, for instance, has two different kinds of production lines: one for regular households and the other for commercial buildings,” Summerfield says. “In the past, they could not switch over easily. So they could look into a more flexible manufacturing process that would allow them to switch.”

But Summerfield doesn’t think companies will want to add extra production capacity in a post-pandemic world.

“Companies want to be lean. They don’t like to have extra capacity available for mass-produced products like paper towels or toilet paper. It’s just not efficient,” she says.

Discouraging the public from panic buying is a more likely strategy.

“They will probably work harder in assuring the consumer that they are going to have enough,” says Summerfield, who believes the consumer supply chain has proven to be pretty resilient during the pandemic.

“Given the lockdown, I think the supply chain has done a great job getting products to the consumer at the right time,” she says.