Keeping Shelves Stocked and Stores Staffed is Becoming Harder Than Ever. But Retailers Should See This as an Opportunity Versus a Challenge.

Retailers know the seasonal rush is coming. They just can’t predict when. That’s why they need prescriptive analytics and workforce management tools that enable them to react fast – as if they had foresight.

A hardware store associate scans a light bulb before putting it on the shelf
by Guy Yehiav
June 28, 2021

Before the pandemic, “seasonal shopping” looked a whole lot different.

It was consistent, if you will.

Each season had its own distinct time period. Halloween shopping took place September through October. Christmas shopping happened between mid-November and December. And back-to-school shopping took place in August through early September. Consumers knew when to plan for these major shopping trips, and retailers knew when to order and stock their special merchandise.

How things have changed!

In the new reality, retailers don’t have that luxury of predictability with seasonal shopping. COVID-19 has created havoc for those responsible for stocking shelves to match demand. Think about it: what if Kalamazoo, Michigan, plans to offer all in-person learning for its students in September, but an unexpected outbreak of COVID-19 forces a return to virtual learning? Suddenly there is no seasonal demand in that area for August/September, and local retailers will have a huge excess of unsold school supplies. Similarly, many school systems have yet to announce whether they will be remote or in-person for the next school year, meaning that a sudden demand for school supplies could strike out of the blue, basically anywhere in the country (or world).

Therefore, retailers must deploy technology solutions that empower them to both stock shelves and staff stores to meet unexpected demand surges at a moment’s notice. Even the most seasoned and skilled professionals will need artificial intelligence (AI) to assist with time-sensitive decisions and actions.  

Luckily, prescriptive analytics and workforce management solutions have been designed to help retailers capitalize on these precise situations.

Seasonal stocking

As I mentioned previously, demand for seasonal merchandise could strike out of nowhere. Prescriptive analytics is greatly helping retailers anticipate demand surges and race any needed merchandise to the right place in time to sustain said surge. That’s because this resilience starts with visibility.

Prescriptive analytics offers the clearest and most extensive view of the retail value chain of any analytics solution. At a glance, users can see the most up-to-date inventory counts at stores, as well as available supply chain resources, warehouse availability and inventory movements across the organization. But it’s not enough to just see what’s happening or what inventory and assets are available at any given time. Retailers need help determining where items should be placed for maximum effectiveness, i.e., to avoid out-of-stocks, overstocks, and ill-timed merchandising.

One of the most popular methodologies for meeting unexpected sales surges involves automating store transfers based on demand. With this methodology, the prescriptive analytics solution analyzes inventory movements for sudden demand spikes. If it detects increasing sales for a given product, the solution will then compare the sell-through rate to the store’s inventory on hand (IOH). Should it detect that the product in question is in danger of selling out, it will instantly alert nearby stores with excess IOH to transfer it to the store(s) experiencing high demand. Retailers can use this function to meet unexpected, localized rushes on seasonal items like holiday decorations, school supplies and more.

We have seen this used successfully many times, such as in a case involving an apparel retailer. A professional football team won a major championship, and before long all the retailer’s stores in the team’s region sold out of branded merchandise (i.e., jerseys, hats, mugs, etc.). Upon detecting these out of stocks, the retailer’s prescriptive analytics solution directed all stores within a two-day delivery radius of the region to transfer their IOH for the football team’s branded merchandise to stores experiencing high demand. With this simple prescriptive action, the retailer managed to keep the team’s merchandise stocked in the region’s stores throughout the sales surge. Without the prompt transfers, the retailer would have missed out on nearly $25,000 in revenue.

Seasonal staffing

While seasonal shopping periods present a massive opportunity to capitalize on increased demand, they come with major risks as well. Incorrectly forecasting customer traffic means incorrectly allocating your employees’ time, which could lead to incomplete tasks and poor customer service at the store.

However, with the right tools, retailers can easily improve labor utilization and mitigate this risk. For example, intelligent workforce management solutions provide the automated demand forecasting and scheduling capabilities retailers need to accurately align labor to a number of key drivers. Whether winter weather is decreasing the volume of in-store visits around the holiday season, or the release of new products during peak sales seasons is driving higher-than-normal foot traffic levels, these solutions will automatically identify and correct anomalies in your labor forecasting data. This subsequently removes guesswork from the scheduling process, simplifying work for store managers and freeing them up to help part-time or seasonal employees onboard quickly and successfully.

Intelligent workforce management solutions also make it easier to manage the scheduling challenges that arise when front-line employees modify their availability and schedules during peak sales seasons. Workers able to access a self-service tool on their personal or company-owned mobile devices can easily request shift swaps, time off, or sick time without having to chase down a manager in person or over the phone. They can also change availability at a moment’s notice, which typically would be an inconvenience to employers if it weren’t for the instantaneous notification and resolution of such changes via this mobile tool.

With intelligent workforce management solutions, all of these requests are communicated in real time to the store manager, who approves these requests with the press of a button.  Schedule changes are made quickly and with as much visibility as possible to both managers and associates, fostering a culture of trust and collaboration – both of which are key to keeping employees happy. Store managers are also empowered to define blackout periods during holidays or peak seasons and ensure all scheduling changes are compliant with relevant labor rules and regulations.

The Takeaway

Retailers will continue to experience unexpected demand surges until seasonal shopping periods restabilize. However, their unpredictability doesn’t have to place unnecessary strain on sourcing, stocking, labor forecasting or scheduling processes. With the right intelligence solutions working behind the scenes to aggregate data, analyze patterns and distribute actionable data, you can simplify these efforts and ensure there are enough products and front-line employees in the store to provide an excellent customer experience.

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Editor’s Note:

If you’re looking for actionable insights that will help you maintain adequate inventory and staffing levels no matter how erratic – or sporadic – seasonal demand may prove to be, you can contact our software-as-a-service (SaaS) experts to learn more about the tools Guy described.

You might also want to check out these related reads:

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Guy Yehiav
Guy Yehiav is a 25-year veteran of the supply chain industry and the General Manager of Zebra Analytics.
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