Blog · 29 Mar 2022

Overcoming the challenges of omnichannel

How can retailers cut through complexity to make omnichannel fulfilment simple and effective while keeping costs low?

Mark Thomson
Director of Retail & Hospitality Solutions EMEA, Zebra Technologies

In an increasingly omnichannel world, pressure on retailers’ operations, technology and personnel to fulfil orders is mounting.

In the last six months alone, many retailers’ online businesses have seen up to five years’ worth of growth, with one large department store seeing 75% of its sales move online. With this increase in online sales, retailers are now competing with each other to offer faster fulfilment, as next day or even same day delivery popularity grows. And the challenge is increased by widespread staff shortages across the UK, making hiring and retaining staff to fulfil these orders more difficult and expensive.

So, how can retailers streamline and optimise operations to cut costs and meet their increasingly complex fulfilment demands? Our experts have identified four key areas to focus on:

Focus #1: Make smarter decisions in the warehouse

In a highly competitive environment, retailers are realising that having products sit on shelves waiting to be picked isn’t great for their margins and are looking to reduce handling times. This move to a ‘just-in-time’ fulfilment model means warehouses are transforming into hubs, where products pass straight through, often without spending the night.

Technology is the enabler here. When timing is everything, deploying a string of automated devices along the product journey can keep things moving in the right direction. By placing radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on items whether individual units or cases - products can be tracked by handheld or fixed RFID readers. Or, to free up staff from manual barcode scanning in the warehouse, smart cameras using image recognition can work in conjunction with RFID to automatically receive stock as it arrives.

Focus #2: Tighten inventory management

Keeping on top of where products are at any given time is critical to protecting margins, fulfiling orders and maintaining consumer satisfaction. Poor inventory visibility leads to overstock, unnecessary wastage and, ultimately, customer disappointment with 49% of customers admitting to having left a store because of an item being out of stock1.

Therefore, accurate inventories are a growing priority, leading to a boom in the use of automation to track items on the shop floor. To make omnichannel trading work, retailers need to have precise, up-to-the-minute figures to synchronise their online and physical stores. With retailers using staff to fulfil online orders in-store, they need to be able to locate items efficiently. This can be a challenge, particularly in the fashion sector, where customers often pick apparel up, try it on and move it around. But sensors in the ceiling can now track RFID-tagged items to give a constant view of stock. Then, smart replenishment tasking prompts staff to restock shelves as soon as there's likely to be a gap, keeping availability as high as possible for the customer.

Focus #3: Empower sales associates

In Zebra’s latest Global Shopper Study, 58% of shoppers believe they have better access to information than most in-store staff1. Could this be true of your retail environment? What’s clear is that, to satisfy high consumer expectations, retailers need to empower their staff with all the information they need at their fingertips. Providing sales assistants with mobile devices gives them instant access to product information, up-to-date store inventory and order availability right from the shop floor. Plus, these devices can boost in-store communication and make it possible to link tasks to real-time contextual information. For example, if it rains, store assistants can be alerted to move umbrellas to the front of the store to increase sales.

Focus #4: Rethink the role of physical stores

For most brands, brick-and-mortar retail is now the key touchpoint for direct customer experience where people can go to see, touch and try products. But, because shoppers today are so used to being in control, they often find the traditional checkout experience frustrating.

Instead, retailers can provide more handheld self-service devices, so customers can scan items themselves and access product information instantly. This reduces queues in-store and also frees up staff to focus on more value driven tasks, like customer support. Some stores are even introducing smart carts, where products are scanned by image recognition as they’re put in the trolley and charged automatically to customers’ digital wallets when they leave. We’re expecting to see more experimentation with self-service models, as retailers seek to make the in-store experience as seamless as their online service.

New horizons for omnichannel fulfilment

There’s a massive choice of different platforms, services and applications available to help retailers improve their fulfilment strategies – but it’s very easy to end up with a disjointed, dislocated, hard-to-manage experience if they aren’t all knitted together effectively.

Working with our partners, such as BT, we specialise in delivering integrated solutions that bring together security, platforms, software, connectivity and management services to support great business results. So, what can this look like?

Imagine simple, accurate and low-cost annual stocktakes and cycle counts. We can provide your store teams with devices and software to make stocktaking easy – and you’ll be able to monitor progress live remotely via dashboards and analytics. What about keeping customer satisfaction high by optimising on shelf availability? We can help you use robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) to monitor your shelves and create tasks for staff to replenish stock, update shelf labels or adjust layouts. Then there’s the support we can offer to make your omnichannel fulfilment seamless. Our solution provides a real-time view of the RFID-tagged items in your store so your staff can always put their hands on an item in a timely manner. And we can help you track and manage assets throughout your supply chain with real-time location data that we translate into the visibility you need.

As part of BT’s partner ecosystem, we pride ourselves on delivering innovative solutions that make better business simple.

If you’d like to find out more about how we can support your business’s fulfilment strategy, please get in touch.

1Zebra, 14th Annual Zebra Global Shopper Study, 2021