The Candid Voice in Retail Technology: Objective Insights, Pragmatic Advice

Inventory Visibility, Accuracy And Availability Remain Elusive

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For several years, inventory visibility, accuracy and availability have been consistently highlighted by retailers as both extremely valuable and extremely hard to achieve across all RSR’s studies. Our soon-to-be-published Supply Chain Management benchmark data is telling us the same.

As an academic data point, this is interesting, and at RSR we’ve been highlighting the challenge. But we also shop, and as shoppers it’s very painful. Each vertical seems to have its own variation on the theme… and it’s not pretty. In fact, I might say inventory inaccuracies are a real source of friction when shopping across channels.

The grocery industry struggles with home delivery. Clearly the delivery services don’t really have their arms around how much inventory is really available or what appropriate substitutes really are. Sure, you can get your money back when something you cannot eat is delivered as a substitute, but it’s awfully wasteful.

Over time, you can ‘train’ the system to know what desirable substitutes are, but one would expect delivery companies to use AI or even simple algorithms to help improve the process out of the gate. A simple set of questions when you sign up would solve the dilemma: 1) Any food allergies? 2) Any foods you cannot eat for other reasons? 3) Any foods you cannot stand? This would enable the retailer or delivery vendor to give you a warning if you happen to order something with a “no-no” in it. Nuts seem to be a good example right out of the chute.

This also applies to meal kit delivery. I canceled a subscription when every vegetarian meal they sent me to make was a) spicy and b) totally carb-loaded. It felt like they were taking the easy way out.

I wanted to call out the above as a use case for AI or machine-learning, but it seems even simpler than that. A few parameters up front would make everyone’s life easier. And providing the customer the ability to add items to the “no-fly zone” (Garnet sweet potatoes, anyone?) would really simplify the experience.

Electronics retailers allude to items being available in the store, while throwing in the caveat that inventory levels may not match what you see on the screen. Really?

It seems these retailers don’t bother stocking the highest-end hardware in stores at all. And I found out the hard way. A good friend tried to buy a MacBook Pro with an I7 processor. They didn’t carry them in the Apple store, so she settled for the I5, after being convinced by the Genius that she didn’t really need the I7 anyway. I tried to buy an I7 PC laptop with a terabyte hard drive from a PC retailer, only to discover they don’t stock anything over ½ terabyte in stores. This is what I want, so had to create an order for it.

Somewhat amazingly, the same electronics retailer told me the product would arrive faster if I picked it up from the store, rather than having it sent to my home. And she had to go to two different systems before she could get me any color besides black (Henry Ford, good morning!).

I know many people feel the term “Omnichannel” retailing is tired, and that it’s all just retail. But when we get to borderline bait and switch, it’s time to resurrect old terms. Have we gotten good at providing a consistent cross-channel customer experience? Not so much.

Apparel retailers have fit issues. I know I’ve said many times that apparel returns of direct to consumer sales are a fact of life. And there are vendors who attempt to identify your fit and the clothes that might work for you.

But what about buying something from the exact same brand you did a month ago, in the same size, only to discover the sizing is completely and utterly different? It happens. It happens to me!

Retailers of all stripes seem to put caveats of all types on their cross-channel offerings – “call store to confirm inventory availability,” “not available in all colors…” those annoying things that make you go, dang, can’t this just sort of work?

I’m not going to get into the world of customer service this week, because I would likely be unkind. One retailer passed me through six different CSR’s, 4 of whom told me I’d been sent to the wrong place, and none of whom really had a solid command of the English language. It made me ask myself, “Do you think I don’t notice?”

Not all retailers are in the same boat. I’ve mentioned Chewy.com before as a company that does a good job at keeping its promises. So does Pureformulas.com. I wonder if they do well because they don’t have any stores. And if that’s the issue, with hundreds of pure play retailers opening stores this year are we going to see a downgrade in service?

So once again, we have to go back to retailing basics. Make a brand promise and keep it. You can’t say “Have it your way,” and also say “You can have any color you want, as long as it’s black.” Technology investments are really required to help wrap our arms around inventory and available to promise.

There’s a mantra here: single view of inventory, orders, and customers. Do you have it? And is that view accurate? If not, you’re in trouble. You may not be in trouble today, but you will be soon.

This isn’t going to change. The need is only going to escalate. Last week, I talked a bit about the irritating word “frictionless.” Ask yourself, how much friction is there in your shopping experience? How can technology help? How are you going to compete?

I promise you, it’s not with Customer Service Reps who can’t even figure out where to transfer a customer’s call, or with bad substitutes. We have a LOT of work left to do in our industry. And the customer has a lot of choices.

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Articles & Opinions October 23, 2018
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