Stock data is retail’s unexplored treasure trove

A new report on omnichannel commerce shows that UK retailers are lagging behind their American counterparts in digital and in-store offerings, despite serving the world’s most mature ecommerce market. But even the US still hasn’t worked out the conundrum of linking up stock data.

Michael Barnett

The research, launched last week by digital think tank L2 and online personalisation company RichRelevance, puts UK high street stalwarts such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Selfridges and Marks & Spencer in the laggards’ camp, judged by the lack of ship-from-store services or visible cross-channel inventory.

Yet on this last measure, their US cousins have also been slow to join up the data. Although the report finds that 27 of the selected American retailers display real-time inventory on their websites, and nine allow shoppers to select a preferred store, only five offer both together: Best Buy, Crate & Barrel, The Home Depot, Sears and Walmart. None from the smaller UK sample offers both.

It seems like a fairly simple idea – displaying a single number that records all available stock across stores and warehouses that customers can order – until you start thinking about the logistics of achieving it.

First off, many retailers have thousands of product types, often in many sizes, adding up to hundreds of thousands of individual stock-keeping units (SKUs). Second, even if you know how many of one SKU you’ve bought across your business, you need to know where all of them are at any given time.

So, how do you keep track? By training staff to scan barcodes every time they move product. That could prove difficult enough on its own, however it should tell you which products are in the warehouse and which on shelves. But remember that the latter are potentially already in a trolley on the way to a checkout or to be discarded by customers on the wrong shelf somewhere else.

You then need to match up data from warehouse scanners with that from your in-store checkouts and waste management operations, so you know what has been sold, what thrown away and what is still in stock. You also need to account for units that are being used in shop displays, or that you have been relieved of by nefarious means – either by shoplifters or light-fingered staff. And then, finally, do you assume all of your store stock can be delivered to all locations, or do you only display stock that it’s economical to send?

While it now sounds a lot more difficult, none of this means it’s not worth trying to join up the data and calculate the figure. There will be mistakes: you will need a buffer to account for uncertainties and avoid selling stock you don’t have, and in some cases you’ll have to send a grovelling apology because you’re unexpectedly unable to fulfil an order.

But at the end of this arduous process is one goal: that of simplifying the customer journey as much as possible. If your customers can see on one screen when you have product in stock – and where it can be bought most conveniently – it means they won’t think twice before coming back to you next time. And that alone is worth the effort.

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