Why it’s an issue and what brands can do to solve it

Retail still has a visibility problem

The retail industry is changing fast. Customer preferences are changing, the balance of power between online and offline shopping is shifting, and as a result, operations and business models are becoming more complex than ever before. While these changes have been ongoing for some years, the pandemic has accelerated the shift and left retailers with no margin for error.

In a rapidly changing landscape, many retailers have done well to pivot effectively. However, with the pandemic and digital disruption ramping up most are unprepared in terms of supporting technology to ensure these new strategies are profitable long-term.

Chief among these is the lack of reliable product visibility that many retailers struggle with. For brands introducing new operating models, reopening stores after lockdowns, and selling to customers in more ways than before (like Omnichannel) not having a reliable view of products can severely hamper the profitability and effectiveness of such services.

What is inventory visibility?

Visibility in retail refers to a brand’s ability to see and track its merchandise across stores and supply chains. Simple enough in theory, but actually achieving and maintaining this is far more complicated.

Accurately tracking products is the first hurdle where many retailers stumble. For stores, it comes down to being able to perform regular stocktakes, several times a week rather than several times a year. With ‘standard’ technology like barcode scanners, this is simply impossible, even with a world-class ERP system tracking what’s officially coming in and out. Without physically validating what is in a store, the accuracy levels will quickly drop to around 70% due to factors like operational errors, stock counting inaccuracies and theft.

In the supply chain, on the other hand, it’s not a case of an inaccurate view of stock, but often no real visibility at all. Retail supply chains often only track ‘cartons’ (or boxes) throughout the item journey, since counting the contents of each item again is either impossible or entirely too time-consuming. This means most supply chains run on what should be present in each carton and shipment, but mispacks and theft are all too common.

The other reason many retailers don’t have real visibility over their products is that their IT and inventory management systems only work on an SKU level and not an item-level. For a full breakdown on what this means, read this article.

So, what is this lack of visibility costing retailers?

Everyday, stores lose sales due to poor product visibility

 The industry is much more focused on achieving product visibility now due to the Omnichannel surge but there is a more immediate issue that costs the industry £369 billion a year globally: poor product availability. Most people will be very familiar with the experience of products being unavailable in the size/colour they’re looking for, or out-of-stock entirely. In fact, more than most – a survey done in 2019 found that 90% of shoppers had recently at the time (the last 6 months) chosen to leave a store and not make a purchase due to an item being out-of-stock! This problem is caused by low inventory accuracy and subsequently subpar stock replenishment.

If staff don’t have an accurate view of what’s on their shop floors through their IT system, they have no way of consistently ensuring that products are ready to purchase in-store. Many retailers have implemented RFID technology to improve this on floor availability in recent years – driving sales through more accurate inventories and regular replenishment from the backroom.

Product visibility in non-negotiable for retailers embracing omnichannel

We’ve covered it in detail in another article, but after years of flirting with the concept, the pandemic has forced the retail industry to really commit and invest in the omnichannel experience. Services like click-and-collect and ship-from-store have become invaluable in recent times, offering flexibility that works for both customers and retailers alike.

As these services have become more common in the wider industry and more consumers than ever were using services like click-and-collect/curbside last year due to the pandemic, the demand for an omnichannel experience will only increase. Retailers are recognising this and scrambling to adjust, in a recent survey from the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) the number one imperative for the industry was to ‘become omnipotent on omnichannel.’

To make Omnichannel really profitable requires investment. Brands that try and offer services like click-and-collect without the required visibility will find themselves constrained. Either they offer a limited service (relying on safety stock and only selling items they have in surplus) or they offer an unreliable one – routinely cancelling omnichannel orders when they discover items reserved for pickup or delivery are not actually in stock.

Retailers that offer effective and profitable omnichannel services have a real-time digital view of their stock across all channels. To make this work those inventories run on item-level data so that their IT systems can handle items being reserved, shipped-from-store or returned-to-store throughout the day, whilst maintaining a 360’ view of merchandise.

Brands are still working towards gaining visibility over their supply chains

Supply chain visibility is a growing concern for retailers. As supply chains have scaled and become global, issues like inaccuracy, shrinkage and bloated inventories across DCs and stores compound and can become million-dollar issues. For example, UK retailers alone are experiencing annual losses totalling £11 billion due to shrinkage.

Knowing exactly what is passing through each stage of the supply chain is a challenge. With traditional logistic methods working on a carton level and SKU level, retailers struggle to pinpoint where mistakes or shrinkage are occurring. For store networks, this results in stores carrying more products than they need, in the form of both safety stock and ‘phantom stock’ (products that the retailer does not even know about).

This has been something retailers have been aiming towards for some time, in a report by Zebra Technologies in 2017, 72% of retailers said they were working on digitising their supply chains in order to achieve real-time visibility. Fast-forward to 2021 and while progress has been made, there is still work to be done. Brands need to invest in technologies like RFID to be able to track individual products throughout every step of the supply chain.

Not only do these digitised operations reduce the number of shipping mistakes, but the granular data that they work with allows brands to optimise their supply chains to levels simply not possible before such digital transformation.

Extent of supply chain visibility

As new retail models develop – the need for visibility is only going to increase

Retail is going through a period of unprecedented change. We have referenced supply chains and operations growing increasingly complex for retailers in recent years and that is only going to continue in the future. Not only will omnichannel experiences continue to grow and develop, but new models are beginning to emerge that will test brands’ agility and require an item-level view of products.

The key driver for the majority of these new models is sustainability. The push for greener fashion retail experiences, in particular, is still in the early stages but picking up traction rapidly.

Burgeoning new sustainable models like rental, recommerce and the circular economy promise a far eco-friendlier experience than fast fashion. These models will have their challenges however, rather than the one-way traffic of typical retail models, these methods will require a lot of reverse logistics. It’s vital not only that brands can handle this 360’ flow of merchandise, but with rental and second-hand items, in particular, item-level data is vital as products will all be unique.

As visibility becomes a priority, it’s no coincidence RIFD uptake is booming

So, if product visibility is an issue across the retail industry, what are brands doing about it?

Since visibility has become a key issue in the last few years, more and more retailers have begun implementing RFID technology to track and manage products across their businesses, on an item-level, at 99% accuracy and even in real-time.

RFID ticks several boxes that are key to achieving such visibility. First and foremost, it digitises products and processes in DCs and stores, creating a digital record of all items. It also works on an item-level, so is able to distinguish between two products of the same SKU. Finally, RFID processes are efficient enough to be done throughout the supply chain, on a daily basis including inbound and outbound checks as well as daily stocktakes for stores. This means retailers leveraging RFID have a 360’ view of item movement from source-to-store, with granular item-level data that works on a global scale.

RFID sustainability graph
Detego Retail Store Application

Cloud-hosted RFID software

Stock accuracy, on-floor availability, and omnichannel applications in stores.

Detego Store is a cloud-hosted RFID solution which digitises stock management processes, making them more efficient and more accurate. Implemented within hours, our multi-user app can provide intelligent stock takes and a smart in-store replenishment process. Later, you can scale the solution to offer omnichannel services and effectively manage your entire store operations with real-time, item-level inventory visibility and analytics.

Shrinkage has always been a critical challenge for retailers, but now post-pandemic, there is much more than inventory at stake.
For retailers and their customers, radical supply chain transparency can provide win-win results.
Meet us at RFID Journal Live! 2021 Meet us on 26-28 September at the largest dedicated RFID conference in Phoenix, Arizona.

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