Late last year and early this year, research was coming out about the supply chain market, and it all looked relatively straightforward. For instance, last summer, Grand View Research predicted that one slice of the global supply-chain market, supply-chain analytics, would exceed $9.8 billion by 2025, growing at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 16.4% from 2019 to 2025. The top factor thought to restrict growth during this timeframe was concerns over data security. And while, at the time, this analysis was solid, it didn’t—and, in fact, couldn’t—take into account what was coming just around the bend.

In the U.S., and worldwide, a curveball in the form of COVID-19 is now complicating the supply-chain picture. In some cases, it’s shedding light on how disjointed supply chains really are. In other cases, it’s throwing into sharp relief how critical flexibility can be within the supply chain. What lessons will this pandemic force the supply chain industry to learn, and will technology play more, less, or roughly the same role in future supply chains as it did pre-COVID-19? What will it take to jumpstart supply chains post-COVID-19? These are some of the questions the industry will be asking for years to come as part of the extensive ripple effects the 2020 coronavirus pandemic will cause in the next decade and, possibly, beyond.

A supply chain is a system of organizations, people, activities, information, and resources involved in supplying a product or service to a consumer. In industries like food and food service, the supply chain includes players as varied as the farmer who’s growing or producing the food products themselves to the transportation company that’s bringing things like milk and eggs to grocery stores and restaurants that ultimately cater to end users: consumers. Several trends during the past several years have been shifting how supply-chains operate, including an overall diversification of consumer preferences, consumer demand for traceability (especially in food and food-service supply chains), consumer and regulatory demand for sustainability in the production and transportation of all kinds of goods, and the use of technology to manage supply chain operations.

Since COVID-19 began to hit the U.S. hard in March, some supply chains were immediately and directly affected by the illness as workers became sick and were quarantined. Many more were affected as supply and demand began to shift in topsy-turvy ways as the economy underwent a major and swift transition. Restaurants and retail stores shut down, and consumers flooded grocery stores for essential items like canned goods and paper products. As businesses were forced to lay off workers, consumers closed their pocket books to entire categories of products and services.

The apocalyptic sense felt upon entering grocery stores with empty shelves left many wondering what was going on in the supply chain. While on the surface, it looked like food shortages, the problem really was and is with the supply chain. On one hand, demand from restaurants has plummeted, and on the other, consumers stockpiling food to avoid coming back to the store as often as usual (or, in worse-case scenarios, hoarding food), are throwing historic data and trends’ value out the window. And yet, technology will be key to both managing this rough spot and jumpstarting supply chains once economies begin to go back to “normal”—whatever the new normal will be.

Supply-chain players prepared to offer transparency, communication, and flexibility are best positioned to limit the disruption to operations during times like the current COVID-19 outbreak. Lessons learned during these hard times will hopefully encourage more supply chains to adopt practices and technologies that will make their link in the chain more resilient next time around.

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