“I Know We Have One in Stock…Somewhere”

How to achieve a living and breathing view over inventory

Technology is helping many retailers with real-time visibility of their store inventory
by James Cadman
March 02, 2019

“We’ve got one in stock here, somewhere…”

How many times have you heard that as a consumer, only to be disappointed that the salesperson was unable to find that elusive – but apparently “available” – item?

Given the difficulties that retailers face in appeasing consumers, it is more important than ever to minimize these types of occurrences. You are practically asking a shopper to leave your store and spend money elsewhere, with a competitor that can quickly deliver that same item.

I realise that items bought online are increasingly being returned in store or sent back to the depot. A quarter of online Christmas and Black Friday purchases were reportedly returned here in the UK. I imagine other regions experienced similar return levels. That means that, no matter where in the world your retail business resides, you are being challenged more than ever to keep track of stock locations. You are even more challenged to get it back onto the shelves in a timely fashion.

Want to improve inventory management? Start with the basics…

For me, the key to preventing a scenario such as the one I described in the first sentence is a return to the basics. Making sure that the foundations are right and, especially, making sure that stock is in the right place at the right time. I know that increasing customer demands have created a “need for speed” in both the front and the back of the store. But hastiness at the cost of misplaced items becomes expensive. Training your employees on quality (and inventory) control fundamentals and making enforcement of these fundamentals as important as clocking in and out each shift, enables these brand ambassadors to ultimately spend more time enhancing the customer experience and providing a seamless experience in today’s omnichannel world.

Then embrace the right technologies…

Thankfully we’ve come a long way when it comes to optimising inventory. The introduction of barcode scanners has made things quicker and easier, automating the process of taking stock, saving time and making life easier for associates. For example, associates can make sure stock is tagged at an item level and scanned before the store opens; they no longer have to close down the store during crucial sales hours. Even RFID has come a long way to meet consumers’ demand for immediate product access – whether in store, online or click and collect.

Despite these good strides, I believe there’s still room for improvement. The main reason for this is that approaches to data capture only provide a snapshot of a moment in time.

Consider the case of a customer who comes in for a pair of jeans but can’t find his or her size on the rack. With RFID, colleagues can see that an item is in stock and should be in womenswear, but a quick check and the jeans are nowhere to be seen. Without accurate inventory visibility, there’s no way to know whether the stock has been misplaced (or stolen) and the customer leaves disappointed and without a purchase.

What we need is a real-time view of the actual stock position across the operation. Such a view dramatically improves things across four areas.

1. Inventory visibility

With 24/7 real-time visibility of stock, the scenario above changes dramatically. Staff can see straightaway that the jeans have been left on the rail in the changing room, can locate them quickly and hand them to the customer. The result is a satisfied shopper, a sale and – crucially – more time for associates to focus on maximising the customer experience.

2. Shrinkage

When stock isn’t in the right place at the right time, it’s essential to know why. Figures from the British Retail Consortium show that customer theft is growing – by 15% in their latest report. Retailers need to understand what’s happening and how they can remedy the situation, whether that’s dealing with theft as it happens or redesigning store layout so that the most valuable or lost items aren’t at the front of the store. Having a better picture of stock files provides the insight needed to flag problems and take positive action.

3. Staff resourcing

With less time spent looking for products, staff can invest more of their time helping people. And associates no longer need to leave a customer’s side to search for stock as they can see exactly where it is at any given moment. Instead, they can concentrate on making sure that everyone has a great shopping experience, spending more time on the shop floor helping and guiding customers. Not only is this great for sales but productivity is boosted too.

4. Omnichannel touchpoints

And it’s not just in-store that this can be a big win. I talk often with customers about blending online and physical channels, and using technology like SmartLens® makes this even easier. Retailers can now move from a traditional central distribution channel model and transform all stores into virtual distribution centres. Why have three centres when you could have 500? Customers ordering online can have stock sent from their local stores, reducing dispatch and delivery times. Or they can click and collect with minimal wait times. No longer is there a need to wait five days for in-store delivery when orders can be ready to pick up in, say, an hour or 90 minutes. According to the “State of the Connected Consumer” report shared by Salesforce, 64% of customers expect companies to respond and interact in real-time; having the right tools to maintain this level of agility has never been more important.

Are you ready to put these recommendations into action?

Take a closer look at SmartLens technology.  It uses smart sensors across your sites to provide a real-time view of where everything is located in this moment. With SmartLens, it’s easy to track stock, retrieve it quickly and fulfill online orders with ease. With 98% accuracy around the clock, retailers will find it easy to turn stock management into an advantage. (No, it doesn’t have to be a headache.) We’ve come a long way since pen and paper stocktaking and, with SmartLens moving us beyond a point-in-time stock position to real-time inventory visibility, I can’t wait to see where technology will take us next.

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James Cadman
James Cadman is responsible for developing and accelerating Zebra's Enterprise Asset Intelligence value proposition in to the UK retail space through engagement with UK retailers and Zebra partners.
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