Why would a Chinese fabric supplier buy a downstream furniture manufacturing customer in the U.S.? As a fascinating look at the furniture business in today’s Journal points out, labor costs in China are under $1 an hour whereas they’re closer to $15 in North Carolina. Doesn’t that mean more expense for the furniture supply system, not less? Labor costs do turn out to be part of the answer, but to get at the real answer, you have to read between the lines.
In a word, the answer is what distribution and supply chain academics call “postponement.” Component value added and final assembly activity is delayed longer in the system - typically closer to end consumption points, to reduce the risk (and costs!) of big inventory and availability bets placed long in advance.
In fact, in a under-appreciated shift emerging in global industries and their supply chains, once passive overseas component manufacturers (read: China) are making bolder moves downstream in local market distribution. To get closer to their ultimate end customers.
For good reason in the furniture example: 90% of exported fabric ends up in U.S. homes. Forward-integrating into local market assembly gives the Chinese a much more complete and timely picture of their prize market, reduced inventory carrying costs, improved end product availability, reduced supply chain disruption costs, and smoother production levels and scheduling back in Asia. And that's just a start.
The Chinese benefit from ownership in several other postponement-related ways as well. They shift some of the assembly costs from North Carolina to China, lowering final product costs and raising competitiveness, by shipping to what is now a US "assembler", pre-cut, pre-sewn Chinese fabric “kits” designed to the State-side assembler’s requirements. And a tighter materials/assembler supply chain gooses U.S. demand by helping the assembler assure on-time, to-spec delivery. The local market "assembler" wins new business by impressing retail furniture chains with its ability to develop living room “settings” unexpectedly fast and better than the retailer hoped.
Meanwhile, competing manufacturers in the US, with their arms-length fabric supplier relationships (and tensions) suffer miserably, even as they brag of "lower overseas manufacturing and sourcing costs".
Side note: one unstated moral of the Journal’s story seems to be that if a supplier wants postponement benefits it has to buy its customers, maybe even their customers too. While I don’t think ownership is always required, it certainly helps. It has other risks I'll discuss another time.
You can get postponement other ways. But that’s also another story.