More than ever retailers must be high alert during for unexpected trading shifts.
During these uncertain times, inventory is crucial not just to manage spikes in demand but also to provide a positive customer experience – here, stock visibility, analytics and forward planning play a crucial role.
Digital services have made managing the customer experience much more complex than it once was. Where we used to call a business to enquire around stock availability, use teletext for last-minute deals or look through the Yellow Pages, we are now spoilt for choice and have everything we need at our fingertips.
Spoilt for choice
Brands have rushed to supplement traditional customer service channels with digital equivalents – while the benefits of doing so have been plentiful, it’s also come at a cost in the way we react as personalities.
We now expect instant answers, quality customer service and contextual experiences. Additionally, the advent of faster mobile data services and improved capabilities has fuelled the desire to be able to “reach out” at any point to anywhere in the world and find what you are looking for, from brand information to product pricing to reviews.
A core area of the industry that is most visibly impacted by this is retail, and one of the areas that needs addressing and urgent attention for many brands is inventory.
For years we spoke about the age of mobile and realised we could use these devices for much more than calls and playing snake – but also to interact with brands and shop right there and then. Utopia, right? Wrong…
Keeping customers loyal
This kick-started a spiralling issue for brands: loyalty. How would brands keep their customers loyal? Price played a big part, but so too did customer service and customer experience, with inventory being a key part of being able to maintain that experience.
Early movers such as Schuh understood the importance of this. If they did not have your shoe size or type in store but had it somewhere else, then it would be shipped free of charge to any mainland UK address for your convenience.
And Schuh continued investing in this area of customer experience. Next-day delivery six days a week is now driven by a warehouse that can pick 12,000 items an hour while its analytics tracks KPIs for delivery, delivery accuracy, and a nimble replenishment model that helps stores to stay stocked. They also fulfil orders from store so customers can reserve shoes online and pick it up in store just 20 minutes later, raising the bar for competitors.
Consumer expectations on the rise
Those who could not adapt relied on spreadsheets, siloed systems and even paper-based in-store stock checking. Essentially, they were unable to give an honest and truly convenient customer experience to their client base, spelling disaster for consumer loyalty.
The age of Amazon Prime and Click-and-Collect means consumers are expecting stock visibility on any device, fast fulfilment, transparency throughout the entire fulfilment chain, and not to mention easy returns. Remember that the cost of retention is significantly lower than the cost of acquisition.
A survey of Gen Z consumers found 60 percent always or sometimes check a store’s in-store inventory availability online before going to make a purchase. Stock visibility is crucial, and if you are not owning the customer experience by managing your inventory and offering full visibility, you can be sure one of your competitors will be.
Keep things consistent
A clear omnichannel customer experience should allow customers a frictionless experience on any channel or device. Customers use various digital and physical channels during the buying journey, and it’s vital that these mirror one-another. This can be extremely difficult for businesses whose data is stored disparately across multiple sources, making it hard to give a real-time view of inventory at any given time… which is the holy grail for many a business.
First come, first served: Sorry, the item you ordered is no longer available.
Traditionally, one of the reasons consumers visit brick-and-mortar stores is for a higher quality of customer service. However, inventory can be an issue for physical retailers, increasingly as many stores diversify their product lines and offer in-store experiences, with shelf space at a premium.
But a lack of in-store inventory shouldn’t mean a lost sale. Aligning in-store technology or mobile sites and apps with inventory management systems provides customers ample opportunity to purchase their goods.
It’s an opportunity to offer fulfilment options – pick up in store, free speedy delivery – and make buying frictionless and attractive, as opposed to the customer leaving the store and finding a competitor.
What do customers really need?
Online and mobile shoppers will be comparing like-for-like products on various sites. Differentiators here will be price, availability and fulfilment options. This is where retailers need to display their inventory, create urgency if possible, and highlight fulfilment, loyalty or discount options to stand out from the crowd.
On the front end, AI-driven analytics tools and inventory management systems, plus cloud-based platforms mean accurate, real-time inventory information can be personalised and displayed to customers anytime, anywhere.It’s vital these customers are given the information they need at key moments in the buying journey.
If the warehouse is low on stock, create buying urgency with a low stock warning. If the warehouse is out, signpost to a click and collect option if stocked in the nearest store, or even better ship directly to the customer from that store. A single view of inventory makes this possible.
Inventory visibility is mission-critical
Ultimately, brands cannot ignore inventory visibility. Clarity on stock levels is now fundamental to success, informing decision making on discounts, upselling, as well as communication.
The pandemic has served to make the relationship between supply, demand and stock availability mission-critical. Businesses which have proactively supported customers during this time and taken steps to provide seamless experiences will likely build meaningful relationships moving forward.
Meanwhile, the consequences for those who have failed to do so could be severe. As we return to normality, we’ll enter a world where eCommerce rules the roost and where full visibility around inventory will be crucial.