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Multichannel: Opening the all-seeing eye

Retailers with omnichannel ambitions recognise the value of having a single view of stock across their entire business.

Having a true single view of stock is a work in progress for most retailers and they have each travelled different distances on this journey.

Carl Moore, account director for Clipper Logistics, which handles fulfilment for George at Asda and clothing for Tesco and John Lewis, says for large retailers the cost benefits remain with operating separate stock files for their stores and their online businesses.

Moore says retailers are content to operate these separate stock files because their store sales vastly outweigh their online volumes. But for smaller businesses it is more cost-efficient to integrate the files and deliver goods to all channels from an integrated warehouse - and, in some cases such as womenswear retailer Oasis, also fulfil online orders direct from their store estate.

Oasis head of customer experience and ecommerce Briony Garbett says the company always had an SKU-level view of stock across its stores and at its distribution centre. But when it decided to offer a variety of delivery options - including 90 minutes from local stores and fulfilling online orders from shops - it had to integrate these ecommerce and retail stock files.

Such a step makes retailers nervous, according to Garbett, who says the key is having a high level of stock accuracy in the business and to utilise real-time updates and not overnight runs - Oasis has 15-minute updates to its stock positions.

Without this there is the risk of items showing as available online when they might have just been sold in store. Oasis also puts in buffers. “If we’re down to the last unit then we don’t show it as available and for fast-moving items this could be the last five units,” says Garbett.

Its single stock view and deliveries dispatched from stores and its distribution centre means Oasis has learnt how to allocate stock differently and the previous depth of SKUs has not been needed in the distribution centre because the stores have taken a chunk of its fulfilment volumes.

This has improved stock availability and volume of full-price sales. But despite the benefits of single stock views, says Garbett, retailers are often hampered as much by culture, processes and staffing as by IT systems that need changing.

Ian McMillan, former IT director for lifestyle retailer White Stuff, agrees: “You have merchandisers forecasting sales and ordering stock so they have a high degree of control but once you get a single view of stock and you get
rid of channel controls and silos it makes them nervous. You have to change cultures as well as systems.”

Despite the challenges, White Stuff implemented a multichannel system from technology firm K3 Retail, which has helped to manage its channels. “We’ve been able to manage the warehouse processes better, which has helped with online and store ordering,” says McMillan.

It also gives White Stuff greater control of what goods are placed on its website - because of the visibility of the stock positions across the warehouse, stores, and through the order fulfilment processes. There had been an appetite to offer a click-and-collect service, says McMillan, but in reality it was possible only once the new system was in place.

It is now rolling out the service across its stores using the K3 system.

Customer demand for click-and-collect has led pure-plays to link up with the likes of courier service Collect+, giving them the new requirement for a single view of stock across channels just like their omnichannel counterparts. Dean Wyatt, vice-president of business development retail UK for logistics firm DHL, says: “A pure-play is more likely to have only one stock file as it doesn’t have store stock. However, it may still have stock in different locations and may also be able to offer click-and-collect via third-party outlets such as Collect+ or MyHermes ParcelShop.”

Small bricks-and-mortar stores are also adding online to their proposition, necessitating their desire for a single view of stock. Laura Booty, ecommerce manager for designer indie Feathers in Knightsbridge, London, says it had been trading for 45 years as a store-based business. But with the help of web portal Farfetch, which brings together luxury boutiques online, over the past five years it has been able to also display its stock online through two channels - Farfetch and Feathersfashion.com.

Stock levels across these channels were previously altered manually but recently its EPoS has been integrated into the Farfetch software for a more automated solution to stock management.

“We now have one stock holding that allows us to have a single view of stock,” explains Booty. “Our EPoS system controls the stock levels for both the Feathersfashion.com and Farfetch websites. It has allowed us to pull more detailed analysis on merchandise from both our online and in-store activity and now, with our integration, we are more efficient and have more control over the stock position and are evolving into an omnichannel operation.”

Farfetch chief executive Andrew Robb says each company monitors its stock differently but the recommended route is to integrate the Farfetch inventory management software that runs the stock files for both stores and online in parallel
and in real time.

“The advantage of this method is simplicity and less manpower required for manually updating the [multiple] stock files. But there still needs to be some monitoring, especially around sizing where you have to map the data [between the store’s systems and that of Farfetch],” says Robb, adding that those retailers who “get it” realise a single view of stock is crucial for providing availability across channels.

“Without it you’re missing the point of omnichannel retailing. It’s the obvious thing to do because availability is the core concept of retail and with it conversions can triple,” he says - yet another prompt for the industry to continue on its journey to having a single view of stock.

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