Import and export opportunities

Navigating global ecosystems with maximum output


Preparing the import-export function for the cyclical nature of the global trade market

Supply chain resilience has become one of the biggest boardroom topics in recent years. A global pandemic, the resulting bullwhip effect, congested ports, and talent wars created chaos for many operations leaders. Just when companies thought turbulent times were over, continued geopolitical uncertainty and fluctuating interest rates have further challenged supply chain risk management practices.

The interconnectedness of global value chains catalyzed growth and created opportunities for multinational companies. With the pace of globalization changing, and given increased regulation and the need for transparency, the urgency of continued reinvestments by companies with highly complex supply chain ecosystems is heightened. Against this background, this report provides a point of view, informed by program experience and research, on how organizations can prepare their import-export function for the unpredictable yet cyclical nature of the global trade market – and determine what approach best suits them.

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Increasing import-export complexity with fluctuating global trends

Import-export (IE) is the trade in products, commodities, and information across sovereign borders with a commercial objective. The associated international logistics and customs clearance operations are integral components of managing the global value chains in consumer-packaged goods, pharmaceuticals, retail, and many other industries. The graphic below shows four external pressures that have increased the complexity of international trade over the past 2-5 years and put strains on IE operations.

Increasing import-export complexity | Strategy&

Although IE transportation rates regularly rise and fall in a cyclical nature, transportation rates have been extremely volatile and unpredictable in the last three years, impacting the ability of organizations to plan appropriately within cost and service parameters. In this context, businesses operating in the IE market need to be prepared for fluctuations in transportation, as rates will likely continue to be cyclical. IE functions may need to consider refreshing supply chain risk management capabilities to prepare and proactively plan to reduce the impact on their bottom line.

1. “Unlocking the Hidden Potential of Import Export Operations”, February 2023

Since the turn of the millennium, geopolitical volatility has caused a significant increase in trade regulations to manage cross-border trade activity. The implications of this increase are twofold: On the one hand, trade enabling agreements reduce the costs of sourcing from specific countries or regions, while on the other hand trade restricting agreements increase the costs of sourcing from specific countries or ban trade flows completely.

2. WTO

Supply chain digitization is not a new concept or investment. However, the evolution and maturity of the digital supply chain have varied across industries and regions. In an era where consumers and partners rely on near-real-time information, capital investment in digitization remains a primary enabler to accelerate reinvention and create competitive advantage. Instead of trying to recreate the years before the pandemic, leaders recognize that digital investments remain critical to the growth journey of any business operation.

Companies face increasing expectations that they will embrace broader climate responsibility, reaching beyond their organizational borders to address Scope 3 impact with suppliers and customers. In this context, optimizing international transportation emerges as a crucial lever for addressing these needs while making an impact on decarbonization goals and cutting emissions. An IE capability can help minimize carbon emissions and evolve the net zero baseline beyond the internal value chain.

The import-export value chain and management approaches

While the IE process is a multifaceted and intricate undertaking that involves various stages and stakeholders, a simplified ‘order-to-shelf’ view presents typical components of the IE process:

Product flow | Strategy&

The complexity drivers, and the reliance on the broader ecosystem of IE service partners, necessitate careful planning, execution, and expert management of the processes. While companies are slowly beginning to think through the strategy behind their IE processes, the complexity of the IE process and the entire ecosystem makes it challenging to optimize operations in a straightforward manner. That, paired with the reliance on service partners, requires clear communications, accountability, and expectation-setting.

As multinational companies take distinct approaches to managing their IE operations, we prioritized three opportunities in a high-level framework to unlock value, depending on the maturity and the objectives of capability reinvention:



Pragmatic approach mainly driven by day-to-day business needs and mostly executed/supported by external parties



Deliberate methodology to optimize the IE function for costs and make international trade flows compliant



IE function as a competitive advantage through end-to-end supply chain optimization to generate bottom- and top-line benefits

Preparing for the inevitable fluctuations in global trade cycles with a future-fit and resilient import-export capability

There is no right or wrong approach, but a dedicated and intentional focus is needed to assess how existing capabilities fit with internal enterprise objectives and those of the strategic partners. As the post-pandemic firefighting effort dissipates, companies should use this time to figure out what is the most relevant play for them, based on considering the following questions:

  • What is the scope of our customs, trade, and international logistics footprint today, and how do we see this changing based on our future portfolio, growth, and strategic aspirations?
  • How do our operating philosophy, problem to solve, and business tolerances differ across markets and sectors?
  • How can we integrate this IE approach into our existing operations capabilities, and what does the resulting operating approach look like in terms of structure, processes, tools and governance?
  • Which areas can help us accelerate value realization by redesigning IE operations?
  • What investments are a must now, and how are we set up to evolve these capabilities against our enterprise transformation roadmap?

Ultimately, maintaining compliance is non-negotiable, and not having the right product in front of the consumer is not sustainable. With continued uncertainty in the macroeconomic climate, those who are better placed to understand vulnerabilities in their operational ecosystem and invest wisely will be more likely to seize the opportunity, while navigating the challenges that lie ahead.

Stephanie Abi Abdallah, Matt McMahon, Meghan Munson Robertson and Xavier van Ardenne have also contributed to this report.

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Camille Ané

Camille Ané

Director, Strategy& Netherlands

Abhisek Mohanty

Abhisek Mohanty

Director, Strategy& US