Adopting a single view of your stock across retail channels is an essential precursor to a true multichannel strategy.
Alongside a single view of the customer, it is a fundamental foundation in integrating online and offline operations.
Even as a standalone project, a single view of stock can be highly beneficial. Understanding your stock in real-time across your retail channels can enable utilisation of innovative fulfilment models: click and collect, multichannel returns, as well as new and valuable customer service and merchandising solutions.
Whilst understanding your stock may sound simple, it can be quite the opposite.
This is particularly relevant in environments where offline and online retail functions have developed as essentially independent businesses, as is the case for many clicks-and-mortar retailers.
In these scenarios, store distribution warehouses might operate entirely separately from online fulfilment, with in-store stock tracked separately from its online equivalent and even online and offline returns accounted for differently.
For retailers looking to create a single view of their stock, there are five key factors to consider:
Whilst cross-channel stock management might feel like a physical integration project, the key challenge is in fact data integration.
For many retailers, stock data can be completely different between online and offline departments, making unification almost impossible without fundamental changes.
Retailers need to unify data models for stock and handling processes at every stage of the distribution chain, enabling them to access information about all stock from a single viewpoint.
Within this, consideration needs to be given to specific product attributes and how these are relevant across different channels; for example large products, reservation status etc.
Once data models are in place, the next stage is to consider the mechanics of physically tracking stock across processes.
For a single view of stock to be worthwhile, it must not only integrate seamlessly at a data level, but data must reflect changes in physical stock status in real-time.
This could mean going as far as bringing your stock into the ‘Internet of Things’, where physical objects become a live part of an intelligent data network. There are a range of options for this sort of stock tracking, from RFID tags through to barcodes.
However, any of these will require a complete review of infrastructure, from warehouse scanners through to in-store EPOS.
One of the major benefits of a single view of stock is the way that it can radically change your fulfilment processes.
For example, a retailer can only offer their consumers a reliable click and collect service if they can accurately track the presence of stock in stores and warehouses in real time.
Similarly, a single view of stock can be used to facilitate next-day or even same-day delivery by turning in-store stock into part of a distributed warehouse infrastructure, enabling local fulfilment from stores rather than monolithic centralised warehousing.
Another way to make the most of a single view of stock is in terms of its impact on merchandising, both online and offline.
Online, a real-time view of stock can enable retailers to customise their offer to shoppers, whether by only showing items in stock or by creating urgency through low stock messaging such as ‘only one left’.
Offline, real-time stock data can help in-store staff to fulfil shopper enquiries about out of stock products, either directing them to alternative stores or to order online, rendering your website the hub of your multichannel offering.
The impact of implementing a single view of stock project can go way beyond the scope of pure retail logistics.
For example, in many retailers online and offline stock are separate silos in accounting terms, causing interactions between the two channels to be financially complex.
The most successful retailers have removed these silos and unified their accounting approach meaning that, for example, if a customer purchases online and returns offline, the transaction is revenue neutral for both business units.
As with any major structural project, creating a single view of stock is going to be a significant investment of time and money for any retailer.
Once in place, it will underpin some of the most successful retail process innovations of our time and form the basis for true multichannel capability.
When combined with the ability to understand customers across channels in real-time via a single view of the customer, it can help businesses become true clicks-and-mortar operators.