When it comes to using Artificial intelligence (AI) and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) in retail for process optimisation, the majority of use cases involve management or ‘HQ’ level decision making. These include automating functions such as store planograms and stock optimisation between stores.
However, AI can also impact retail on a much more micro and everyday level, actively assisting store staff in one of their most common daily routines –stock replenishment.
Using RFID and the information it collects from stock reads, we can produce AI pick lists to optimise and guide staff through the replenishment process. Not only are we combining RFID technology and AI algorithms to produce these pick lists, but existing RFID processes are already assisting staff. When you put all this together, replenishment become a walk in the park.
Let’s start at the beginning…
RFID-based Stocktake and Replenishment – The backbone of modern stock management
With RFID, store staff can do regular (often daily) cycle counts of the entire store quickly and easily. This is simply done by walking around the backroom and salesfloor with a handheld reader that counts items that are several feet away, using radio frequency. An RFID application or software, like the Detego platform, will then compare the actual stock levels of the shop floor with the desired counts (i.e., planogram), and tell staff exactly what needs to be replenished from the backroom.
So far, what has just been described has been entirely RFID-based and is the standard process for RFID in retail. This is already far easier and more accurate than traditional methods, not to mention the actual effect of the technology like higher stock accuracy and product availability. But why stop there?
Taking it one step further – AI pick lists for ‘mapping’ the perfect replenishment path
Normally, even with the support of RFID, the store staff are then left to fulfil replenishment by themselves, using the list provided by the application. These pick lists are often only sorted by product features such as name or price. Because back rooms can be quite large in bigger stores, or densely packed in smaller ones, the staff’s ‘pick path’ can be incredibly sporadic. This is made even worse in the case of new staff who don’t know the layout of the backroom by heart, or even experienced staff if stock has simply been moved around and updated with the start of a new season.
By utilising new tag localisation techniques, it is now possible to locate where items are in the backroom in relation to each other. This is done during the regular RFID stocktakes that are already taking place, utilising data mining and machine learning pipelines without any need for additional hardware or specialist tags. Using this information, we can create automated AI pick-paths that, using a mobile application, guide staff through replenishment and present the most efficient order to collect items in.
The above example is designed to present the quickest possible replenishment route for staff, so is solely using items’ distance from one another to calculate a pick list. However, AI pick lists can process the replenishment list in a number of ways, depending on what the store wants to focus on.
Replenishment paths could take additional factors such as product value or expiry date into account, alongside the location of the items. It would then look for items that fit this rule and are nearby one another in the backroom. For example, a pick list targeting on-floor-availability would group nearby items that are running low on the sales floor, so that these items are refilled first to speed up the replenishment process whilst also combatting loss of sales from out of stocks.
Benefits of AI-pick lists
A single point of truth in retail means having a single view of stock across the business. It means stores and distribution centres aren’t islands of merchandise that are clunkily attempting to share their version of stock information with one another as best as possible. Instead, at the foundation of the business is a unified view of every single product. Because this view of stock covers the entire network, items can move between stores and DC’s and remain in line-of -sight the entire time. This has huge benefits for individual operations and the business as a whole.
A single point of truth for retail inventory must be:
What is gained from having a single stock view?
Delivering a single stock view with RFID
So how do you achieve this reliable and complete view of stock? A single view of inventory starts with the single item. By giving each item an RFID tag, you’re essentially giving it a unique digital identity. This means, using regular RFID reads and sensors, you can easily track the item as it moves along the supply chain. Once it has arrived in a store, the stock becomes far easier to count, monitor and control. Because all this information is stored centrally in a single place, the individual item can be seen by the online store (and its customers) and even neighbouring stores and DC’s. This transparency boosts efficiency and makes cooperation between different arms of the retail operation far easier to manage.
The Detego platform is the single point of truth for retail inventory
The Detego platform puts all this together and delivers a single stock view that can be counted on. Using RFID we effectively digitise every single product in the supply chain and the store network. The information can then be fed into existing systems, such as ERP and OMS. This delivers all the benefits mentioned above, and our in store application guides store staff to effectively capitalise on this complete view of store inventory.
‘Detego is our “Single point of truth” in terms of in-store inventory. As a result, we are able to improve our omnichannel services such as click & collect, returns from e-commerce in the store or directly deliver to consumers from the store in a very efficient way. These are exactly the services our consumers expect today.’
Tobias Steinhoff, Senior Director Business Solutions Sales Strategy and Excellence, adidas
In the modern retail industry, you’ll no doubt read a lot about how ‘customer experience is king’, but with such a subjective notion that can’t be measured in any reliable fashion, it often feels like a vague concept. An actively bad experience is more tangible (and something we described how to avoid in our previous article) but what makes an exceptional one is more of a grey area. In fact, the elusive notion of customer experience is at risk of becoming yet another retail buzzword.
So, what does good customer experience look like? We’ll start with making an important distinction between shopping and buying. Shopping is the all-round experience of browsing in a store, looking at items, trying them on (in the case of apparel) and finding items and making decisions as you go. Buying on the over hand is a more straight forward (in theory) process were a customer knows what they want to buy, or at least has a rough idea, and finds and purchases their item quickly and easily.
It’s often said that E-commerce is ahead of physical retail when it comes to simply buying but struggles to match the shopping experience of brick-and-mortar. Some retailers have leaned into what sets them apart from online, focusing their investment and new technologies on improving the shopping experience, to surprise and delight their customers. Others have looked to implement technology to compete with e-commerce’s convenience and provide a more streamlined and ‘seamless experience’.
The reality is both of these elements are pivotal to a strong customer experience, and retailers should look to improve both, sticking to the principal that:
Retail should be fun when you want it to be, but fast when you don’t.
The fun side of retail is mostly concerned with the shopping side of the retail experience. This is obviously very subjective, and many retail customers will simply find the traditional shopping experience fun, provided they are not hampered any problematic friction points. For other customers though, more needs to be done to amplify the ‘wow factor’, as Steve Dennis says, to tempt them away from either a competitor or the convenience of online.
Retailers are increasingly looking to technology to boost consumer engagement in the store and provide a more entertaining shopping experience. Examples of this include:
Augmented reality (or AR) is an interactive experience where virtual images are placed over images of the real world. Applications of AR in retail include mobile applications and fitting rooms where consumers can virtually try on products like clothes or even cosmetic products.
Smart Fitting Rooms
Smart fitting rooms offer a considerable improvement on the traditional fitting room experience and bring a little bit of the online experience into the brick-and-mortar store. The mirror automatically detects items (when tagged with RFID) that have been brought into the room, displays them on the mirror with product information and suggests other items that are available, effectively bringing cross-selling into the store.
Virtual & Robotic store assistants
Robotic store assistants are certainly on the more futuristic end of the spectrum, with the ability to talk to customers and guide them around the store. Whilst this technology is in the earlier stages, with fairly low adoption rates, they are an undeniably fun concept that will make customers think ‘wow’. On the other end of the spectrum we have virtual assistants or chatbots, which can communicate with customers through their smartphones and answer queries and provide them with information about items and stock-levels.
But what happens when a customer doesn’t want to spend their time on the full shopping experience? In such a case, a customer is only focused on buying and not shopping. Certain retailers leave something to be desired here, with disorganised stores and long lines for customer service and checkouts. The buying side of retail also happens to be what e-commerce excels at, so retailers need to invest in technology to be able to compete and keep customers choosing their stores when it comes to fast and convenient purchases. These technologies and strategies include:
Advanced Points of Sale
Long lines for checkouts are a common problem in retail, and for customers looking for a fast experience this is a major friction point. Thankfully there are a range of PoS technologies that make checkout fast and frictionless. Self-checkout is very common in the food industry and reduces queues if not the time taken at the checkout itself. Alternatives like RFID PoS on the other hand significantly reduces checkout times, were as checkout-less solutions like Amazon go and Mishipay remove the checkout altogether.
RFID’s smart inventory
The other main thing slowing down the buying process in the brick-and-mortar experience is finding the correct item in the first place. Locating a specific item in the store can sometimes take far more time that it should, especially if staff don’t have the time or the information to help. What’s even worse than this is if after searching for the item the customer finds out that its out-of-stock altogether. We explored this in detail in our previous article but RFID not only significantly reduces out-of-stocks and increases on-floor product availability, but the real-time view of inventory it provides means customers can check available stock online before setting foot in the store.
We’ve spoken about e-commerce being good at the buying half of retail, and with the vast majority of retailers now being online and 73% of customers using multiple channels in their shopping journeys, it’s no surprise the demand for omnichannel is as strong as it is today. For a fast retail experience, customers can take advantage of click-and-collect and click-and-reserve when they just want to buy products rather than shop for them.
Good customer experience does both
So, to wrap things up, if retailers want to establish a reputation for a great customer experience, they need to have an equal focus on the shopping experience and the buying experience. Shopping should be fun; the in-store offering should be superior to online and at its best it should surprise and delight customers with a certain ‘wow factor’. At the same time, sometimes people just want to buy, and if brick-and-mortar stores make that significantly less convenient than online then they’ll suffer to the competition. By effectively leveraging the right technologies retailers can provide a top-level customer experience that delivers on all fronts and keeps customers coming back time and time again.
Stocktakes are mandatory for retail businesses. With the right software, they can fulfil much more than just legal requirements. A real-time view on inventory provides the basis for high on-shelf availability and customer-oriented services.
The word inventory has its roots in the Latin “invenire” which means “to find something“. Anyone who has ever been involved in the process of a stocktake knows exactly how well this terminology fits. Finding something becomes particularly complex if the ERP system displays a different stock than what is counted on the sales floor and in the backroom. Usually, the products are written off as loss or attributed to shoplifting – which is a big problem especially in the fashion retail industry. But what if articles that could not be found are still in the store? And what about “positive differences” – meaning a surplus of stock?
The crux with inexact stocks
RFID-based article management with permanent inventory offers a very precise and reliable view on the stock-figures. Businesses are presented with real-time data, which the store personnel can access at any time. With this form of inventory, retailers get accurate stock information at any time and do not have to deal with numbers which may or may not be accurate at present. At the same time, the level of granularity can be increased: RFID technology makes it easy to determine which items are in the backroom and which ones are on the sales floor – the ideal starting point for a truly efficient refill process.
The optimal inventory cycle
The objectives of an intelligent inventory management process go far beyond the accounting requirements. A question that is frequently asked is “how often do we need to do that in order to achieve our targets”? Today’s systems, using AI and machine learning techniques, can automatically suggest the optimal inventory cycle, providing increased efficiency and store performance with positive effects on the overall profitability. A perfectly balanced inventory requires systems with an integrated and automated replenishment process, analytical forecasts on top sellers and the corresponding size breakdown.
Project implementation: a few hours. Stocktake duration: a few minutes.
It’s not only expensive to close down the store and hire additional personnel to carry out stocktakes – also the degrading accuracy has severe impact on the top and bottom line results of a store. For a quick start into exact inventories, intelligent software that drives article availability and inventory accuracy near 100% within just a few hours is now available –without having to invest heavily in a time- and resource consuming project. The quick-start system delivers a convincing performance in the store from day one and makes the roll-out across the entire store network easy and fast. The tedious and time consuming way of looking for articles that may or may not be there will be a thing of the past. Maybe it is time to find a new Latin word that is more suitable?
Specialist retail software provider, Detego, has successfully eliminated over three million stock shortages during various pilots and ongoing retailer projects after using merchandise management software powered by artificial intelligence to help combat perilous out-of-stock situations.
Thanks to tiny radio-frequency identity (RFID) tags attached to every item and the real-time monitoring of articles from warehouse to store using connected devices, Detego is trying to make sure that missing sizes and gaps on the shelves are no longer such an issue and headache for retailers. Projects have shown high article availability and near hundred percent inventory accuracy when using IoT technology and the AI powered Detego suite, compared to an industry average of around seventy percent in most fashion retailers’ businesses.
The AI software is also being used to analyse vast amounts of data and uses machine-learning to better understand the behaviour of several million consumers, deriving insights and actionable recommendations for retailers, it said.
Analysis shows that the vast majority of shoppers today still favour visiting a store. This trend is particularly strong in fashion, although a growing proportion are switching to other omni-channel options, including shopping online, via smartphones, or click-and-collect from nearby stores.
“Even with all the advances of the digital age, more than 80 percent of retail sales happen in bricks-and-mortar stores. In the fashion industry, customers still want to walk into shops to see, touch, and try on different outfits. While customer motivations for entering stores are largely the same as they were twenty years ago, their expectations are much higher. Customers who can find anything they want on their smartphones in seconds expect similar instant gratification in stores. They want the items they see online to be available in the store and in their preferred size, style and colour,” said Uwe Hennig, CEO at Detego.
Detego has seen significant growth in omni-channel services this last year, recording over 1.5 million omni-channel transactions through its software suite.
“Omni-channel services like click-and-collect are another important cornerstone for connecting the best of the online world with the benefits of bricks-and-mortar,” said Hennig. “Customers now expect a seamless, unified retail experience across multiple channels: for instance, being able to click on and reserve any items discovered online for trying on in a store the next day.”
Customers drive retail strategies with their various and versatile demands. They want the ability to shop anytime, anywhere while expecting a consistent brand experience in the store, on the web and using mobile apps. Customers anticipate immediate access on an article’s availability across all channels – and fast delivery! Failure means losing a customer to a competitor. They’re only a click away. Meeting these expectations requires a digital transformation of the stores and efficient omni-channel retailing. But how to implement these strategies successfully? With an intelligent business base.