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The Most Disruptive Decade in Supply Chain History: Six Key Trends to Watch

Benjamin Harris • 9/13/2022

Over the past few decades, the supply chain has adapted to several significant changes—from the Y2K threat and rise of the Internet in the 90s to the proliferation of e-commerce at the start of the 21st century. But no other decade has been nearly as disruptive to the supply chain as the 2020s have been thus far—and will surely continue to be—thanks to pandemic-induced market volatility and subsequent economic challenges. The disruption has caused a divergent dynamic for the industry. While retailers, manufacturers, distributors and logistics firms find themselves scrambling to secure supply, maintain inventories and manage shipping customer orders, this increase in demand is simultaneously creating huge opportunities for industrial and logistics property owners and investors—altogether undeniably good for industrial and logistics real estate overall. 

No matter where you find yourself in the supply chain ecosystem, it’s important to stay on top of the following key trends in order to navigate, not only the rest of this decade, but the next decade(s) as well. Here are six trends to watch: 

  1. Onshoring is on the Rise 
  2. Container Shipping Costs are on the Rise, Too 
  3. E-commerce is not Equitable 
  4. Time Management Alternatives Beyond Last Mile Facilities 
  5. Increased Focus on Reducing Carbon Emissions 
  6. Automation and Remote Supply Chain Labor Opportunities 

Trend No. 1: Onshoring is on the Rise 

While international trade is still growing in absolute terms today, the share of the output moving across regions has fallen from 28.1% in 2007 to 22.5% in 2017 External Link and is continuing to decline while onshoring—the practice of relocating business processes to lower-cost locations within national borders—is experiencing an uptick.  

This trend has been strongest in Asia due to the influence of middle-income earners, projected to grow from two billion people in 2020 to 3.5 billion in 2030 according to the World Bank. In fact, 35% of global consumption by 2030 External Link will be accounted for by emerging markets mostly in Asia, excluding China, and this is driving increased trade within the region.  

What does this mean for CRE? Expect to see an increase in the near-shoring and onshoring of supply chains in all regions, which is creating more opportunities for growth in certain markets and a continued urgency for industrial and logistics buildings. In the United States specifically, this means there will likely be more political and economic incentives provided for companies to set up shop. A November 2021 study published by McKinsey found that 93% of companies surveyed have plans to make their supply of materials and products more resilient and agile, with many looking to diversify by “onshoring” or “multi-shoring” production. In simple terms, this means using several suppliers distributed geographically and across the supply chain to spread the risk of disruption. But the same report found that just two percent of these firms were aware of the risks faced by companies further up the supply chain. An automaker, for example, might understand the risks facing the companies that supply it with components, but be unaware of the challenges facing the companies that manufacture the electronic chips used in those products. That’s a problem considering the continued impacts of COVID on the global supply chain and the crisis in Ukraine. 

The Math Behind Supply Chain Inflation in Asia Pacific

The combination of supply chain backlogs and rising costs are impacting business operations around the globe. Supply chain disruptions have caused up to 50% of the inflation across Asia Pacific. How did we get here? 

Cushman & Wakefield Research has identified a few key constraints and costs that account for supply chain inflation in Asia Pacific.

Explore Infographic

Trend No. 2: Container Shipping Costs are on the Rise, Too 

Today, container shipping costs are almost five times higher than they were pre-pandemic. Although onshoring and near-shoring will help a growing number of companies to mitigate these high shipping costs (as mentioned above), for those companies still shipping overseas, the math behind the supply chain inflation is daunting.

What does this mean for CRE? The current vacancy rate in U.S. port cities such as Los Angeles, Savannah and New Jersey is at or below 2% External Link, and labor shortages and lack of building materials are further constraining the supply pipeline—creating even more upward pressure on rents going into the second half of 2022. Additionally, the supply-demand imbalance is putting intense pressure on industrial vacancy, which is at an all-time low, as well as rents, which are growing at a rate that more than doubles the rate of inflation. As a result of all of this, real estate in alternative, less congested port markets is becoming much more attractive. In fact, some companies are bypassing West Coast ports altogether and sending shipments all the way to the East Coast to then rail ship back across the country.  

It’s uncertain what will happen next, but industrial developers have been conservative (relative to the last expansion) on speculative development particularly due to the lessons learned after the global financial crisis and the overhang of space that took years to absorb. For instance, the United States has seen build-to-suit rates at about 30%-40% External Link as a percentage of total development under construction on average in the current expansion compared to 10%-20% at the height of the last expansion. This is not to say that speculative development is not happening, or that there isn’t an appetite for it. Instead, developers prefer to operate on a “build-to-suit” basis based on needs of occupiers with regard to location and asset customization. 

In Asia, we are seeing some easing of ocean rates off the peaks of 9 -12 months ago, but costs are still well above historical levels. Rising fuel prices are having an impact but softening demand should result in further easing longer term with short-term volatility in the meantime. 

The Math Behind Supply Chain Inflation

Global shipping costs are as much as 4.75 times higher than they were pre-pandemic—accounting for as much as 30-40% of inflation. How did we get here?

Cushman & Wakefield Research has identified a few key constraints and costs that account for supply chain inflation in the US.

Explore Infographic

Trend No. 3: E-commerce is not Equitable 

One of the things we often overlook about e-commerce is that it’s not equitable. For example, In the United Kingdom, around 96% of the population has made an online purchase according to e-commerce delivery software provider Metapack. But of that potential customer base, 70% of parcel volume goes to just 10% of households in the UK. 

If e-commerce retailers need to effectively deliver packages to that 10%, what about the other 90% who will still expect quick shipping in the event they do order something online? It’s a tough balance. The “Amazon Effect” that forever changed consumers to expect next-day delivery categorically complicated e-commerce strategies across the board wherein they now need to design supply chains that can offer this service profitably. Add in a global pandemic where people were afraid to leave home and now e-commerce demand has grown in segments that typically had the lowest e-commerce penetration, like home goods, home improvement and grocery. 

When you think about e-commerce and omnichannel fulfillment, they have to grow and shift. Understanding customers and where they live is an ongoing challenge. Logistics network design becomes bespoke.  

What does this mean for CRE? Retailers need to understand where those customers are and how they shop—and that not all logistics locations will mean the same thing to different occupiers. As a result, we need to look carefully at how an asset is used when we are buying on the capital markets side to understand the criticality of the site and the head room an occupier might have for rental growth without impacting margin. This is particularly true for last mile where not every city and suburb will be impacted equally. 

Trend No. 4: Time Management Alternatives Beyond Last Mile Facilities 

Deploying inventory and order picking closer to consumers is necessary to achieving faster order turnaround times, but there are other ways to address time management within the supply chain with less reliance on relatively expensive last mile centers. 

The leading e-commerce players in China, Alibaba and, have built scale by investing heavily in Artificial Intelligence (AI), predictive analytics, warehouse automation and intelligent transport systems. As a result, they have the lowest fulfilment costs in the sector—10-12% of Gross Merchandise Value (GMV)—which compares closely with many brick and mortar retailers. And it works—the share of total retail purchases ordered online External Link in China is now up to an incredible 46%. 

What does this mean for CRE? In addition to leveraging technology to lower fulfillment costs, there is a growing synergy between warehouse and retail locations, pushing volume through stores. The back room of many brick-and-mortar retail locations are in essence being used as fulfilment hubs, shipping products directly from the showroom floor to consumers. This saves time and money because products can go from the warehouse in palettes and single orders can be packed at the store. Grocery stores provide a good example of this. Grocery has the lowest margins in retail, so adding a stand-alone last mile location often isn’t profitable. It makes much more sense to pick from in-store, which is why we will likely see a rise in grocery stores that have micro fulfillment centers.  

Trend No. 5: Increased Focus on Reducing Carbon Emissions 

Increasingly more businesses are looking closely at supply chain governance and, more specifically, at their suppliers’ ethical and sustainability practices. The brand impacts on unethical practices can be significant, and consumers and investors are rewarding brands and corporations that are seen to be better for the environment. Since transport is the biggest contributor to carbon emissions in most supply chains—up to 80% of total emissions for consumer products companies External Link—many supply chain managers are now being tasked with reducing carbon within the supply chain. When companies redesign their supply chains for the next five to ten years, they need to be making trade-offs now between costs and carbon to be able to meet aggressive future ESG targets. 

What does this mean for CRE? Investors and property owners should have visibility over the decisions their customers are making in relation to their future supply chains and the downstream opportunities that this creates for logistics and industrial real estate. In addition, landlords need to understand how occupiers’ supply chains are impacting the environment and be able to report back. Research shows that where deliberate steps are taken to invest in sustainability features, the premium for these real estate assets can reach up to 21% External Link

Trend No. 6: Automation and Remote Supply Chain Labor Opportunities 

New technologies are not only making it possible to drive a forklift from a remote location, but remote truck driving is being explored, too. Considering an estimated 80-85% External Link of fulfillment warehouses in the U.S. have not automated any processes, this type of automation could open up many remote supply chain labor opportunities, which could be a huge win in the war for industrial talent. 

The opportunity goes beyond the U.S., too.  For example, only 10% of warehouses in the U.K. are utilizing high levels of automation according to a logistics study Cushman & Wakefield conducted. Labor arbitrage and restrictions in global flows of labor due to the pandemic are causing significant wage inflation, leading to a stronger case for automation there, too. 

Asia’s rate of growth in automation, however, is well ahead of the other regions (see visual below). With growing consumer demands and the cost of automation reducing, automation adoption rates are strong in response to managing increasing labor costs as well as ensuring the speed, accuracy and efficiency necessary to satisfy customers and scale as volumes grow. 


What does this mean for CRE? The ramifications of remote warehouse work on industrial real estate could be substantial. The war for industrial talent is fierce. Employing a smaller labor force within warehouse locations would mean having to identify and hire less talent while also freeing up more space within those locations. The automation wouldn’t replace all employees, of course, but would instead enable them to perform other more strategic skills, which would require additional training. The capital expenditures for this automation, however, would be significant. 

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