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The Top 10 Things We Learned About Retail Supply Chain in 2016

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We write long, dense reports and we know it. We’ve been trying to find ways to turn our big benchmark reports full of insights into something more digestible. Here’s one attempt – you’ll see more experimental things from us in the coming months. This one is all about supply chain execution – specifically, the top 10 things we learned from our benchmark on retail supply chain execution. We’re wrapping up our coverage of that report in the next 2 weeks. Here are the things about supply chain execution that really seemed to resonate with our audience. In no particular order:

1. It’s 3am, shoppers are on the website, can retail companies tell them where the inventory is?

One of the simplest ways retailers can be more “omni-channel ” is to expose store inventory availability online. Retailers can show an item online even if it’s out of stock in the eCommerce DC, and can potentially drive traffic to stores to pick up local inventory that otherwise might not of sold, if the shopper had not been able to find it online first.

2. Inventory that is “close enough ” in retail stores is completely unacceptable in an omni-channel world where retailers are trying to promise click & collect.

One of the main drivers of retailers’ current supply chain strategies, especially in the context of fulfillment, is the need for much greater inventory accuracy in stores. When you’re promising in-store inventory to online shoppers, you can’t drive them to a store and then say “Oops! Sorry, I don’t have it. ” But the more inaccurate or untrustworthy a retailer finds its in-store inventory, the less inventory is available to promise to online shoppers. How many do you have to have in-stock before you can promise an item to online shoppers? Four? Ten? Retailers are finding it’s well worth their while to try to make that number as small as possible.

3. Retail companies’ top supply chain challenge isn’t supply chain. It’s keeping omni-channel customers happy.

This goes hand in hand with #2. The retail supply chain is no longer about moving products around. It’s about keeping customers happy. That’s a good shift, and one that some might argue has always been the focus of retail supply chains, but in reality, there has been far more focus in the past on the front end of the supply chain – procurement, in-bound transportation, distribution to stores. It wasn’t until eCommerce became big that anyone thought about the last mile to the consumer’s hands.

4. Too many retail companies seed the plan with where demand was fulfilled, not where it was captured.

This is going to become a big problem in the future. While it is true that retailers can benefit when they are able to leverage inventory across channels to meet demand, it’s also true that the most profitable way to meet demand is to put inventory in the right channel to begin with. Retailers aren’t doing enough to protect themselves from making future mistakes. If you ship from store to meet online demand, that means you did not send enough product to the eCommerce DC to begin with. But you’ll never recognize that issue if you count the shipment from store as store-based demand.

5. Retail supply chain just isn’t as profitable as it used to be – BOPIS and omni-channel can drive sales but also raise costs.

In #4 above, I said that retailers can benefit when they are able to leverage inventory across channels to meet demand. That is true. We’ve done exercises using numbers validated by retailers shipping from store and offering click & collect – they get ridiculously large very fast. Just being able to save the sale by selling items online that are out of stock in the eCommerce DC can justify the investment in the inventory visibility to make that possible, forget about the benefits that can come from driving incremental trips to stores to pick up inventory or the margin benefits of selling an item at full price online when it was about to be marked down in the store.

But if retailers aren’t tracking the cost to fulfill – the shipping costs, the number of orders that must be split between the eCommerce DC and possibly multiple stores, and let’s not forget both the handling cost of picking in stores and the opportunity cost of spending store labor fulfilling orders instead of selling – then the benefits of selling store inventory online can evaporate in an instant.

6. The percent of retail companies focused on faster fulfillment doubled from 21% in 2015 to 40% in 2016.

One other cost that is impacting retailers’ profitability in fulfillment is speed. Walmart just announced the end of an Amazon Prime-like membership program, opening up many items to free two-day shipping without any kind of membership payment. They’re just the latest retailer to struggle with how to get faster, while at the same time struggling to figure out how to get consumers to pay for it.

7. The home has replaced the fitting room for apparel retail – creating a big returns problem.

It’s fascinating to see the implications of both consumer behavior and retailers’ response to that behavior. One of the most interesting places where that is playing out right now is in apparel, where returns are skyrocketing as consumers “webroom “. If you haven’t heard the term, it’s related to “showrooming ” where consumers go in store to look at items they then buy online. Except in webrooming, consumers buy multiple sizes and/or colors of an item, try them on in their home, and send the rest back.

Fashion retailers have to attack the problem from both sides: they need to make it easier for consumers to confidently buy the right size the first time, and they need to make sure they have a fast, efficient returns process. If you’ve got 35-40% return rates, that’s 35-40% of your inventory you can’t sell because you don’t have it, or at least don’t know yet if it came back ready to sell again. That’s just too much inventory to ignore.

8. Only 6% of winning retail companies have no plans to implement same day shipping vs. 23% of lagging peers, at least according to RSR’s benchmark survey.

When retailers talk about the need for speed, I always have to scratch my head over how much they focus on things like free second-day shipping, but then take two days to acknowledge an order and five total to ship it out the door.

Retailers can potentially avoid costly commitments for things like second-day air if they can get an order out the door the same day that order is received. It makes me wonder: how much investment is required to get to a promise of same-day ship (I will get it into the carrier’s hands the same day I receive your order) vs. funding free two-day shipping (as in, once it’s in the carrier’s hands, it should take 2 days to get to you)? I have to think the investment in getting faster inside the four walls will ultimately pay off much more than handing more money over to carriers. But maybe I’m missing something.

9. Retail companies report that endless aisle in stores is wreaking havoc on supply chain processes.

One thing we haven’t talked about up until now is endless aisle. Online inventory visibility to store and ship from store create their own challenges, and while it may be tempting to lump endless aisle in with those challenges, it is a different animal.

Selling inventory you never had to hold seems like easy money – no inventory risk, but all of the margin benefits. You never have to mark it down – it’s the vendor holding that risk. But you also have to make it visible to consumers so they know they can buy it from you, and you also have to have the inventory visibility and process support to pull off dropshipping directly from the vendor to the consumer. Endless aisle also comes back to haunt the retailer when returns come into play, especially when the retailer accepts return to store, and a pile of inventory “orphans ” that aren’t guaranteed to go back to the vendor, but must be marked down immediately in the store to get them to move.

10. Retail companies are not happy with the supply chain systems they have in today’s omni-channel environment and seek big changes.

After going through the other nine on this list, hopefully #10 comes as no big surprise. Most of the supply chain technology investments that retailers have made to-date have been in support of a supply chain designed to operate in one direction only – from supplier to store. And even in the last 5-10 years, even as that unidirectional supply chain has come under siege by omni-channel, retailers’ investments have been more about kludging their existing supply chains to work in the new environment than about adapting or evolving.

The lifespan of kludged supply chain solutions is coming to an end – at least, if retailers want fulfillment capabilities that won’t break the bank. That means interesting times ahead for both retailers and the technology solution providers who sell supply chain solutions.

This is just the condensed version of the story. If you want the whole thing, be sure to read the full report.

Newsletter Articles February 14, 2017
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