Back in the day when I clothed my kids in Gymboree from head to toe, the sales clerks could almost always manage to find the size I needed by, “checking in the back.” Every store has a stockroom in the back where, presumably, massive quantities of extra products are shelved. Well, a couple of years ago I was surprised to find out that this isn’t true, Gymboree notwithstanding.
In fact, most stores operate on a system known as, “just in time shipping” or “just in time management.” In other words, products arrive just in time to be put on the shelves to replace whatever has been purchased. That’s why, when a store has a particularly good sale on an item, once it’s sold out, it might be out of stock for days or weeks. There are no extras hidden in the back room. Retailers keep their inventories to a bare minimum in order to save money and to not end up with a stockpile of a product that isn’t selling.
One impressive feature of this system is that it is run by computers and can actually forecast which products will be needed where and when. For example, when the weather in a certain area takes a turn toward higher temperatures, the system will automatically begin shipping items such as sun block and beach toys. An oncoming hurricane will trigger the shipment of bottled water, baby formula and ice. You can read more about this impressive system here.
Now, what does this information have to do with your family’s survival and preparedness? Imagine there’s a major crisis in our country that slows the shipping business down to a crawl. It could be a natural disaster affecting the busy ports along the west coast. Excessively high diesel prices could drive some trucking companies out of business and reduce the amount of goods being shipped via our highways.
The fact that our nation is so very dependent on technology is exactly what makes us so vulnerable, ironically. Just in time shipping has been serving manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, and consumers very well, but it’s also a fragile system. It depends on our nation’s power grid and ready access to the internet. A massive power grid failure, cyber-terrorism, or just mischievous hacking could create a cascade failure of important goods reaching their destinations.
Whatever the event, the just in time shipping strategy may leave the average American family high and dry in the middle of a major crisis.
The American Trucking Association presents a sobering view of possible consequences to a partial or complete interruption to our nation’s trucking business. You should take a few minutes and read the entire paper, but here is a brief summary of a possible timeline in the event of a truck stoppage.
Within 24 hours
Delivery of medical supplies to the area affected by a disaster will cease.
Service stations will begin to run out of fuel.
U.S. mail and other package delivery will cease.
Within one day
Food shortages will begin to develop.
Without manufacturing components and trucks for product delivery, assembly lines will shut down, putting thousands out of work.
Within two to three days
Food shortages will escalate, especially in the face of hoarding and consumer panic
ATMs will run out of cash, and banks will be unable to process transactions.
Garbage will start piling up in urban and suburban areas.
Within a week
Automobile travel will cease due to lack of fuel. Without autos and busses, many people will not be able to get to work, shop for groceries, or access medical care.
Hospitals will begin to exhaust oxygen supplies.
Start keeping track of the goods you buy most often and the most important services your family uses. Virtually every one of them will be affected by a disruption in our just in time shipping system.
Preparedness now is the key. Simple steps toward three months or more of food storage may make the difference between your family getting daily, nutritious meals and standing in line with hundreds of other hungry people, hoping to get a few groceries. A home garden will produce fresh produce, and safely storing several gallons of fuel may help you and your family get through the worst of it.
Just in time shipping works well for manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers but is vulnerable when calamity strikes. Fortunately, preppers can take advantage of this knowledge by taking prudent steps to safeguard our families regardless of what is on a store’s shelf.
This article was originally published on December 18, 2009, and has been updated.