Sexing up offshore outsourcing
Great, just great. Bruce Bartlett says in the Washington Times that yours truly is “an indispensable blogger” on matters of international trade, “especially outstanding on the so-called outsourcing issue and excels in staying on top of the research in this area.” So now I’ve got expectations to meet. How do I satisfy my expectant readership? ...
Great, just great. Bruce Bartlett says in the Washington Times that yours truly is "an indispensable blogger" on matters of international trade, "especially outstanding on the so-called outsourcing issue and excels in staying on top of the research in this area." So now I've got expectations to meet. How do I satisfy my expectant readership? [Sex up the topic!!--ed.] With that suggestion, it's worth highlighting a McKinsey Quarterly analysis which concludes that even in a world where offshore outsourcing is possible, location still matters a great deal. This is especially true when trendy undergarments are involved:
Great, just great. Bruce Bartlett says in the Washington Times that yours truly is “an indispensable blogger” on matters of international trade, “especially outstanding on the so-called outsourcing issue and excels in staying on top of the research in this area.” So now I’ve got expectations to meet. How do I satisfy my expectant readership? [Sex up the topic!!–ed.] With that suggestion, it’s worth highlighting a McKinsey Quarterly analysis which concludes that even in a world where offshore outsourcing is possible, location still matters a great deal. This is especially true when trendy undergarments are involved:
We found compelling evidence that in a number of cases, offshore manufacturing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. One reason is that for many manufacturers, the importance of direct labor is declining rapidly. Since it often accounts for just 7 to 15 percent of the cost of goods sold, hard-goods and high-tech manufacturers often say that wage rates are hardly the most critical determinants of their overall economic performance. Consider the case of one fashion apparel company based in Los Angeles. Its 1,500 workers, paid at rates well above the minimum wage, make casual wear in an old, multistory downtown brick warehouse. The executives view labor costs, currently 3 percent of the retail price of these goods and heading lower, as a secondary concern to the company. If it were to move its operations offshore, logistics costs might well swallow up any savings from lower wages. Another example: A consumer electronics manufacturer we interviewed has stripped away roughly 60 percent of its labor costs from production and reduced lead times from weeks to days. Even if an offshore competitor drove down its own labor costs close to zero, this manufacturer would still have an insurmountable advantage in logistics—a fact that has emboldened the company to reverse-engineer low-end Chinese goods for manufacture in California. Since keeping plants near customers shortens lead times, it facilitates greater responsiveness to changing market conditions. The Los Angeles apparel maker can fill orders for up to 160,000 units in 24 hours, since the entire supply chain–including weaving, dyeing, and sewing—is located downtown. The company carries less than 30 days’ worth of inventory and could even become a build-to-order producer. Another Los Angeles garment maker produces hand-sewn fashion accessories with a lead time of less than five days. This kind of speed can be a competitive weapon–and its absence a trap. In the fashion apparel industry, with its spiky, unpredictable demand, the five-month lead times that accompany offshore production can leave manufacturers with excess inventories of fading styles or shortages of hot items. When a brief fashion craze ended before one California designer’s shipment of goods had arrived from China, for instance, the company was left with a boatload of velvet knickers that could be sold only at a high discount. And with mass retailers penalizing suppliers for late orders by as much as 2 percent a day, the cost of miscalculation can be high…. Not that all U.S. manufacturers should make their goods at home; offshoring will always be a valuable component of manufacturing strategies. And for companies that make goods such as socks or spark plugs–for which demand is stable, inventory-holding costs low and labor a high proportion of total costs–overseas production in low-wage countries is a very attractive idea. Nonetheless, offshoring often isn’t the right strategy for companies whose competitive advantage comes from speed and a track record of reliability. And with buyers in advanced markets like California becoming more sophisticated–demanding shorter product life cycles, quicker delivery, and lower inventory costs–slow, unreliable manufacturers forgo valuable opportunities to gain market share or revenues. (emphasis added)
Read the whole thing. UPDATE: Gary Rivlin penned a less-sexy but similar-themed piece on Dell’s decision not to engage in much offshoring in a New York Times piece behind their archive wall. Fortunately, the Charlotte News Observer republished it. Key paragraph:
Dell’s decision to expand its U.S. manufacturing presence, however, has nothing to do with patriotism. Executives here say their decisions are based on the bottom line as well as on geography; it is simply more efficient to stamp out computer equipment closer to the customer. “The reason we continue to manufacture in the United States is that it’s the optimal place to do so, and we can do it most cost effectively,” said John Hamlin, who oversees Dell’s consumer line.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner
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