Retail

Changing The Stripes Of Omnichannel Inventory Management

No retailer wants inventory to be a sunk cost. But between the promise and the purchase lies the shadow (with apologies to T.S. Eliot) — making sure that customers and salespeople can find the actual products where and when people want them. Avoiding frustration is the key to a happy customer, and Zebra Tech’s Zebra SmartSense for Retail can help smooth the process, Ravi Kanniganti, director of vertical market strategy at Zebra Tech, told Karen Webster.

In retail, inventory is what you’ve got and you hope they want. But when it just sits there gathering dust, money isn’t coming in, and space is being wasted. Human judgement — what to offer, where and when, and for how much — drives inventory decisions. But human judgement is, of course, fallible if it does not have the correct information at hand.

Technology, as it does so often with every corner of life, can help augment that (retail) judgement. Zebra Tech has announced, as of Tuesday (Jan. 10), the availability of its Zebra SmartSense for Retail asset visibility solution, billed as enterprise asset intelligence that can help retailers gain insight into what’s moving and what’s being passed over like wallflowers at the dance. Half the battle of inventory management is knowing where the products are in the first place — as in, on the shelves, in the stockroom or there at all. Given the fact that accuracy in inventory tracking, as noted by Zebra, runs at 60 percent, there is room for improvement.

In an interview with Karen Webster, Ravi Kanniganti, Zebra’s director of vertical market strategy, said the technology is a game-changer with a “combination of different technologies integrated” via sensors and dashboards so that users can view “what is happening in a retail store, analyze it and immediately give input to the retailer as to what they need to do right now.”

The process is one of sense, analyze and act, said Kanniganti, adding that the Zebra SmartSense combination of ultra-high-frequency radio frequency identification (RFID), video and microlocation tagging acts as a “platform for retailers … with a big picture view of what matters to retailers.”

“We understand that the retailers are concerned about inventory. They are concerned about their customers, how they are behaving, what their needs are, and they want to know where their sales associates are,” he said, which plays into creating a positive experience in the physical store itself.

If a customer has bought online and now is coming into the store to pick up their order “and they really need help and the sales associate is not there, then the whole process is gone,” said Kanniganti, who stated that “retailers have a mandate to improve their inventory accuracy and to put that inventory in a section so that, when the customer comes to search for an item, they know that it is available in the store.”

All of this combines to help salespeople respond to customer needs with speed (and accuracy), helping them get what they want at the time they want it.

Webster noted that other technologies exist that let retailers track merchandise and also view consumer behavior, and upon asking what differentiates the Zebra offering, Kanniganti responded that the debut of handheld (and RFID) technologies did, and do, make a difference in inventory management, but they are not always up-to-date (as data may not be refreshed in real time). On the other hand, Zebra’s new solution can track inventory, literally, as it is being moved by the customer or the sales associate, guided via multiple sensors. The end result, he said, is that the retailer has “much more control over the inventory — where it is and how much [of it] is there.”

It is the real-time tracking of inventory that remains among the biggest challenges retailers face, he said. Another challenge is answering the question: “Where is this item?”

“Sometimes, it is sitting in the fitting room” or it is misplaced, said Kanniganti. “Or customers move it … I know that my ‘green screen’ is telling me these items exist in the store, but I [the retailer or salesperson in-store] can’t find them.”

Zebra’s solution, he said, can pinpoint the item in question via a map of the store and a blinking light spotlighting that previously elusive item.

“It’s up-to-the-minute information rather than historical data,” he said.

By way of example, discussed by Webster and Kanniganti, a manufacturer makes a sweater, that sweater makes it to the department store and a tag on the sweater (tracked via Zebra) helps show that the sweater makes it into the fitting room — but never makes it out of the fitting room to a final purchase. This information, as Webster noted, can be relayed to the manufacturer to say via “actionable insight [that] there’s something wrong with this sweater.”

Kanniganti concurred, saying that the fitting room conversion is something that can be viewed with better detail — in this case, “customers like the design” and perhaps even the price, but there is something happening when they try the merchandise on.

Other categories beyond fashion lending themselves to such smart sensing, said the executive, include electronics, and Kanniganti maintained that the solutions are modular enough to be added on piecemeal, depending upon the use case or size of the store.

In addition, he said retailers can develop insight into whether the actual, exact location where they are keeping inventory is an optimal match — perhaps, he said, prime space can be used for something else. Data can be viewed at not just the store level but at the company level, he said, to track just what merchandise is moving the fastest to purchase. And, Zebra has estimated, optimal use of displays with bestselling items can boost sales by 20 percent.

One downside: no more hiding the merchandise in the rack so that others can’t find it (and you can pick it up later).

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