Digital Transformation

Four keys to supply chain transformation with Sweetwater’s Robert Gerwig

supply chain transformation

Stop for a second to consider how ubiquitous and easy ordering something online is and having it delivered. It’s simple for the buyer, but behind the scenes, it becomes far more complex. Even beyond the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain disruptions are inevitable.

On this episode of the Transform It Forward podcast, I explore supply chain transformation with Robert Gerwig, Senior Vice President of Distribution at the leading online music retailer Sweetwater.

Supply chain transformation — pivot quickly

When the pandemic hit, Robert and his team could pivot quickly and successfully. Employees switched seamlessly to remote working while the distribution team made fast changes to meet the growing demand for online orders.

How did they do it? Here are four key takeaways from Sweetwater’s supply chain management, pre- and post-pandemic.

1. Put people first.

The world will always continue to have tech advancements, but people are still the root of everything. People are the ones writing the code and designing the software. For an organization to be truly prepared for transformation, it must have a people-first mentality.

At Sweetwater, Robert and his team recognize that robust systems and supply chains would not exist without the employees that make them possible. By focusing on taking care of its people, the company was able to adapt to COVID-19 quickly without resistance or fatigue.

“At some point, if you lose track of the fact that people are behind the technology, people are behind the instruments, people are behind the pick, pack, and fulfillment of orders for customers, you will quickly sub-optimize the overall performance and sustainability of that organization.”

2. Plan for the worst and hope for the best.

Developing contingency plans to react to problems is a core component of any business, but it’s especially important in a supply chain. Many retailers were exposed to the pandemic by not having proper systems and plans in place. We learned this year that even though we think some things are far-fetched, they can happen to anyone.

Sweetwater prepared for the worst by developing a strong internal IT infrastructure. Almost all of Sweetwater’s systems and software are developed internally, including its Warehouse Management System (WMS). This means that they can make changes to the WMS (and other systems) at any point, with fast turnaround times and high-level customization.

“In six months, we’ve made hundreds of changes to our system and tweaks to the process from a continuous improvement standpoint. The decision-making process is fun and challenging because it means that people like myself, and others on our small internal steering committee, get to decide the priorities.”

3. Balance the soft things with the hard things.

Speed of service is important, especially in a supply chain, but it’s far from the only factor. Increasingly, customers want to feel a personal connection and have an exceptional experience, just as much as they want their goods delivered fast.

In competition with big players like Amazon, Sweetwater differentiates itself by offering a unique customer experience. Instruments and music gear are high-value items that often require a lot of consideration and technical expertise. That’s where Sweetwater’s sales engineers come in.

“We have a very large percentage of our sales that come through person-to-person interaction. We have sales engineers who are technically trained and really understand music and the technical components of the music industry. They spend a significant amount of one-on-one time on the phone with customers. And these customer relationships are often for life. For, you know, five, 10, 20 years.”

By fostering valuable relationships with customers, Sweetwater can understand specific consumer needs and improve retention times of transformation.

4. Don’t resist change, embrace it.

This has been a common thread in every episode of the Transform It Forward podcast. Change comes fast and hard. Don’t fight it. Embrace it. The best companies are fluid, adaptable, and continue to transform along with their industries and customers.

When the pandemic started, Sweetwater rolled with the punches. The inbound operations team focused on strengthening their vendor relationships and increasing inventory to fulfill the boost in online orders.

The IT team updated internal software and systems to help employees work productively at home. And when the warehouse staff wasn’t allowed to come to work, the CEOs and their families masked up and ran the warehouse. In fact, this ability to adapt resulted in an even better supply chain.

“There were hundreds of improvements that came out of that because, when you have the CEO or the CFO going to the pack station and working with technology and packing materials, they obviously have a different perspective.”

By taking a people-first approach to supply chain management, organizations can build the foundation for successful transformation: strong teams, excellent supplier relationships, and valuable consumer experiences.

Listen to the podcast here.


If you missed the prior podcasts, click here.