What is the Future in Using Technology To Maximise Retail Sales and Manage Inventory?

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Mero Wings Hornbeam seating cubes at Top Drawer show, London
Mero Wings Hornbeam seating cubes at Top Drawer show, London

The rise of the online marketplace and omnichannel retailing

Selling directly through marketplace websites and social media platforms like Ebay, Etsy, Instagram and Facebook is commonplace in 2021. Buying directly from social media sites has risen even further in popularity since the first lockdown was announced in the UK a year ago. It is very convenient for the consumer as a way of purchasing and spending. Online ‘bargains’ and ‘treats’ can come in the form of planned purchases or  impulse buys.

Aspirational purchases can be an intuitive experience for teenagers, men and women alike. Exciting accounts use influencers who use videos, messages, photographs and filters to highlight the latest hobbies, fashions, home interiors, books and much more.

Portable devices and smart phones mean that these sites can be accessed by a buyer or seller anywhere and at any time of the day or night. Selecting specific items for home delivery can be influenced by friendship group choices. It is not necessary to travel, park, queue, social distance or wear PPE when ordering from the comfort of home, work or anywhere a shopper happens to be located.

PayPal and other automatic debit card services linked to an individual’s phone or device means they can place an order in a second or two. Equally the seller can receive a request for their products almost instantly, using the latest internet banking connections. Both small and large companies then use specialised apps and smart technology to keep tabs on what is ordered, purchased, stored, displayed and sold.

Efficient packaging systems decrease impact on the environment 

Sustainability in packaging is an essential practical consideration for any shop, says Molly Park at Papier stationery and cards. An example of good practice is “using the original product packaging” says Bryony Sheridan at Liberty. This ensures the materials that the supplier initially sent the product to the warehouse wrapped in, get reused without any additional waste. (1)(3)

Minimising waste is better for the environment as well as being an effective way to reduce unnecessary costs. Supermarkets and florists always focus carefully on this aspect, as many of their goods are perishable. Carefully controlling waste is important to any business especially if there is a fashion or seasonal aspect to the range. This is because the value drops so sharply after a particular calendar event, holiday or even when the weather changes. The demand for seasonal ranges often suddenly decreases or are not wanted at all now by anyone as different products then become in vogue. Tracking stock digitally helps to avoid holding surplus or out of date stock.

Technology is now automatically detecting, tracking and analysing stock

Molly Park at Papier also highlights how using technology to manage inventory is crucial to running the business efficiently. Most retailers have been using a computerised stock management system for the last 20 years. Large organisations like Marks and Spencer and John Lewis have been automating their warehouse operations using tags and scanners, barcoding, web based systems and robots for more than two decades. (5)(6)

This gives managers accurate data about what stock they are actually storing which translates into what they can actually sell. This is especially necessary when running a physical and an online store simultaneously. Clever inventory management includes situations such as  quantifying any purchased items that are awaiting delivery. This information can help manage costs and prevent expensive mistakes or undeliverable expectations. It can also highlight where a promotion is desirable in order to move slower selling lines before they become ‘old hat’. Achieving competitive pricing and planning ahead for seasonal sales is also directly influenced by maintaining accurate and detailed stock management data.

The supply chain consultancy Paul Trudgian defines an ‘integrated inventory management system’ as a process that “holistically tracks inventory across all the different channels of retail.” (7) The logistics experts describe how active systems can “detect, track and analyse automatically”

The level of technology used in retail stores and online businesses varies according to the needs of both the seller and the buyer. Organisations with less customers who offer a higher level of personalised and customised service, may only have a very basic level need to monitor their inventory and ensure sales information is recorded. An example of this might be a classic car manufacturer. Designers and makers may still use inventory systems to record and control the manufacturing process and supply chain information. Alternatively a market stall, coffee stand or pop up shop may choose ‘analogue’ systems for simplicity, especially if operating in an environment where the internet is unavailable.

If a company sells many different products and ships to a multitude of different clients each year then an automated system is essential to avoid a mountain of paperwork and extra administration. Most supermarkets, fashion boutique owners, home furnishing chains and DIY stores have at least one digitised selling and stock management system.  Often several systems are operating at the same time and there are software companies that specialise in amalgamating and optimising the efficiency of these digitised programs.

Technology can boost customer loyalty

By automatically recording the buying behaviour of customers through loyalty schemes and delivery records managers can gain insight into what their patrons likes and dislikes are and what products and services they are likely to want in the near future. Experienced retailers will know their clients personally and sometimes even hold their own ‘customer books’ of people they have developed a good relationship with, as they fulfill their clients wishes over time.

This information can then be used to suggest and market new items and the latest collections to consumers via all sorts of communication such as newsletter emails, advertising and invitations to events. Automation can mean this activity can be carried out on a grand scale whilst ensuring specific factors are taken into consideration such as age, gender, lifestyle, location and other preferences.

Digital and Health Passports 

Some experts predict knowing who has and has not received the latest vaccines to protect against Covid-19 will become important to all forms of life including retail businesses. Companies are likely to take into consideration some sort of ‘vaccine passport’ when booking services that include travel and physical events in the future. Scanning a barcode on an app much like the current NHS Covid-19 app may be required to access all kinds of services and could become part of standard ordering procedures.

Knowing the vaccine status of members of the public may affect who receives which marketing messages and which customers are most likely to visit a shop in person, or purchase a given selection of merchandise such as luggage for example. Knowing which followers have visas for travel to states in the European Union or beyond may also be vital information over the coming months for any enterprises who have a global aspect to their venture.

Personalisation

People’s expectations of a seamless customer service experience throughout the delivery process is growing, as online shopping continues to increase in popularity. Keeping it personal throughout the process is likely to continue to be very relevant according to W2 Solution, who are a Japanese eCommerce company. They advise “simply personalising the checkout procedure or email correspondence is a great place to start. Customers respond well to personalisation, it adds value to their purchasing process and increases the likelihood of repeat purchases.” (8)

Maximised user capacity at busy times

Big holidays and special events such as Black Friday mean that websites have to be able to potentially handle many thousands of requests for web page information at the same time, without any loss of speed or unexpected site crashes for their visitors. Technology providers will continue to innovate in this area, to give their clients confidence that they will not miss any valuable sales enquiries.

Cash deskless shopping and locating equipment

This month the first Amazon store without a cash desk opened in London. This innovative grocers allows shoppers to put items into their baskets and just walk out of the store confident that their smart phone app has recorded and paid for their selections. Many CCTV cameras and the latest tracking technology means that merchandise is monitored to ensure everything is sold correctly. Honing in on the exact location of reusable storage pallets, bins and equipment in ‘realtime’ can create an even more sophisticated stock inventory process that is ready for the 21st century.

Managing team resources and recording extra data

Roberto Michel at Modern Materials Handling reports how keeping costs low is still a key consideration when choosing which radio, bluetooth or web based inventory monitoring devices to invest in. Richard Stewart at HighJump Software recommends users “dynamically manage inventory on the fly”. This can include recording all sorts of information about warehouse resources and the traffic and location of a warehouse team and other key assets in order to be able to introduce efficiency improvements. (9)

Voice directed picking can assist new employees in finding the right stock location within an unfamiliar commercial premises. Scanners can also be used to find out temperature which is especially useful when dealing with cold chain goods. In the future mini computers inside scanners could easily monitor sound levels or check colours, types of materials and potentially a whole host of other attributes, that a supplier might want to know instantly.

Artificial intelligence improves the picking process

Robots are increasingly used in large warehouses to pick orders. Ruthie Bowles at Logiwa writes about how some new robots are learning how humans pick objects like oranges perfectly, with just the right amount of pressure. Predictive picking helps larger retailers prepare the stock that they are extremely likely to want to have ready to ship quickly. This can significantly increase sales during busy times, holidays and when running special promotional offers. (10)

Making returns a breeze for customers

Despite clearly stating the best descriptions and outlining the clearest sizing policies both online and physical shopping will always have a proportion of sales which will be returned by the customer for one reason or another. How simple and straightforward the returns are handled will influence how likely it is for a person to repurchase again quickly.

Marks and Spencer and John Lewis are famous for establishing a comprehensive returns policy which has helped to build trust that supports their business success over several generations. Amazon has introduced ‘return centres’ with orange ‘hub lockers’ at busy places in communities on both sides of the Atlantic and this is a trend that is set to continue.

Sustainable policies such as ‘repairing’, ‘reselling’, ‘buying back’ ‘swapping’ or providing opportunities to donate preloved objects to charity will likely be expanded across many sectors of the economy. Optimising the reuse and recycling of materials in order to respect and conserve our eco-systems is crucial, as we all work towards reducing the retail industry’s energy consumption. Mending and alteration services may also form part of the vision for returns as will close attention to the expected product lifecycle, during the designing and buying phases. (11)

Printing barcodes on home printers enables consumers to easily pop packages into their local post office or out on their doorstep for a hassle free collection. These methods are bound to continue to be incorporated by many other modern companies going forward. Just as GPS systems and cardless payments are part of everyday living in 2021, further developments in wearable technology and virtual reality are bound to provide further innovation possibilities in both the ordering process and inventory management in the future.

 

(1) Bryony Sheridan, Buyer, Liberty Ltd.,11 March 2021  Bryony Sheridan, Buyer, Liberty on LinkedIn

(2) Bryony Sheridan, Buyer, Liberty Ltd.,11 March 2021 Bryony Sheridan, Buyer, Liberty Ltd.

(3) Molly Park at Papier, Stationary, Cards and Gift Retailer, 11 March 2021  Molly Park at Papier, Stationary, Cards and Gift Retailer

(4) Molly Park at Papier, Stationary, Cards and Gift Retailer, 11 March 2021  Molly Park at Papier, Stationary, Cards and Gift Retailer

(5) John Lewis Partnership, 11 March 2021 John Lewis Partnership

(6) Marks and Spencer, 11 March 2021 Marks and Spencer

(7) ‘The Advancement of Technology in Inventory Management’ Paul Trudgian, Supply Chain Consultancy, 11 March 2021 ‘The Advancement of Technology in Inventory Management’ Paul Trudgian, Supply Chain Consultancy

(8) ‘Understanding Customer Experience – Where are you going wrong?’ W2 Solution, E-Commerce, 11 March 2021 ‘Understanding Customer Experience Where are you going wrong?’ W2 Solution, E-Commerce

(9) ‘The Future of Inventory Management’ Roberto Michel, 22 January 2020 ‘The Future of Inventory Management’ Roberto Michel

(10) 7 Inventory Trends Retailers Should Know’ Ruthie Bowles, 17 November 2020 7 Inventory Trends Retailers Should Know’ Ruthie Bowles

(11) ‘Looking Ahead: The Future of Inventory Management’ Melanie at Unleashed 11 March 2019 ‘Looking Ahead: The Future of Inventory Management’ Melanie at Unleashed

(12) Mero Wings Hornbeam range of outdoor furniture (image photo by A Howse) Mero Wings Hornbeam Ottoman outdoor furniture

(13) Packaging Chimp UK Packaging Chimp