Every year, more than 1,500 people from around the globe descend upon Las Vegas on Super Bowl weekend for the annual Reverse Logistics Association Conference & Expo. The audience is comprised largely of supply chain executives from the world’s best-known technology companies and consumer electronics retailers. The conference is a great forum to exchange ideas as companies improve their reverse logistics processes, identify opportunities to refine their sustainability programs, look at solutions offered by service providers supporting the industry, and reduce costs. Today I’d like to take a look at that last topic, reducing costs. Limited product lifecycles and complex supply chains To put it simply, the consumer electronics industry is cut throat. You are only as good as your last product, and nobody is safe from consumer backlash if a product does not “Wow!” them and deliver bottom-line results for the manufacturer. And unlike many retail products, the effective lifespan of a product and its ability to win big in the market is not just seasonal, it may have only days or weeks to perform before it is more or less obsolete. For that reason, the complexity of the supply chain required to support returns in such an industry can be accurately described as a maze littered with the remains of products that need to find a resting place at the end of their useful life. But these questions remain: where do they go?; how do they get there?; and what is the most cost-effective way to make sure they get to their final destination? Measuring costs Once the consumer is through with the device, the challenge becomes to identify the most optimal way to manage the flow of goods and materials. Unfortunately, many companies look at isolated areas of cost (such as transportation, for example) rather than the big picture, and are dissatisfied because they have a difficult time addressing other areas of the business where cost overruns are apparent. It is imperative to understand that any business, regardless of industry, is a delicate ecosystem that involves every area of the operation that relies on open communication among all channels. So while operations may try to save a few cents in one place, customer service may have a difficult time managing call center costs because the data required to support their environment is not necessarily provided through the ‘low cost alternative.’ As for marketing, well, if they cannot monitor consumer behavior and proactively market to them based on specific events observed through the use of the data, customer satisfaction may suffer and the business may miss critical revenue opportunities. It is enough to drive finance nuts, as the business as a whole may be headed in the wrong direction and with no clear answers as to how to go about fixing it. The best solution for your business may not always be the least expensive. Trying to shave a few cents out of your operating costs may wind up costing you dollars in the end if you are not careful. The future is the consumer We have seen a complete evolution in the ways in which consumers shop. From the times of Ben Franklin (the original catalog marketer) until the 1990s, very little changed as people purchased through traditional brick & mortar outlets or through catalogs. The revolution in retailing brought on through integration of technology, customer buying preferences, and marketing is still in its infancy, as alternate retail channels accounts for less than 5 percent of total retail revenues. Whereas ‘mobile commerce’ was revolutionary a couple of years ago, we are progressing to the point of ‘social commerce’ as more and more people use alternate devices and mediums to fulfill their needs. As such, they demand that the information and services provided to them be easily accessible, have the ability to be consumed at a time when it is convenient for them, and have meaningful content. Despite the wonderful advances that consumer electronics companies and their sales channels continue to make to offer products designed to support consumers’ lifestyles, they must also make sure their policies and the way they support the consumer after the sale supports their lifestyles as well. Trying to adapt old processes and unfriendly customer service policies in an effort to reduce costs or prevent returns may cost a company significantly in the new age of merchandising and retailing. As new thought leaders in the market emerge, it is likely that the focus will shift to service – based on a desire to build lifetime customer value rather than the idea of ‘saving’ a dollar here and there. For companies only focusing on the here and now, there may not be much to look forward to down the road.