4 ways retailers can improve supply chain management

Supply chain experts share their tips for tracking and expediting inventory in today’s ‘I-want-it-now,’ multichannel retail world.

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Retailers and their suppliers are under more pressure than ever before to deliver more goods to more destinations faster.

To stay competitive, “retailers need to know where things are at all times so they can redirect shipments, rebalance inventories and respond to new demands on the fly,” says Rich Becks, general manager, Industry Value Chains, E2open, which delivers cloud-based supply chain collaboration solutions.

And if there is a problem with their supply chain, and they can’t get products to stores and/or consumers, retailers (and their suppliers) risk losing customers.

So what steps can, and should, retailers take to make sure their supply chain operations are running smoothly? Following are four suggestions from retail supply chain experts.

1. Use cloud-based software that can track and manage inventory in real time. “Retailers struggle to balance uncertain consumer behavior and long, complex supply chains,” explains Kurt Cavano, vice chairman & CSO, GT Nexus, a supply chain technology company.

“These two challenges make it harder than ever to align supply with demand, which can quickly impact margins and sales,” Cavano says. “A solution to this is to implement a supply chain network in the cloud that tracks inventory and demand changes, and allows retailers to respond to the latest demand signals in near-real time.” This way, “retailers can adapt to things like seasonal trends and other fluctuations in demand on the fly.”

2. Use source tagging and RFID to keep track of inventory and stock levels. “To improve supply chain management from the moment product leaves the manufacturer's warehouse all the way through to the point-of-purchase, retailers should deploy a source tagging solution,” says Steve Sell, director, North America Marketing, Retail Practice, Tyco Integrated Security. “With an increased awareness of the volume and location of merchandise available across all channels, source tagging helps inform inventory management and supply chain operations at all levels to better inform business decisions.”

“For example, warehouse stock levels can be continually monitored so that stocks can be replenished whenever sensors detect a near out of stock situation,” says Mark Morley, director, Industry Marketing – Manufacturing, OpenText, an enterprise information management provider. “Tagged goods in a warehouse can [also] help to guide pickers to their exact location,” making for faster fulfillment.

To gain further visibility into the supply chain, “implement RFID,” says Melanie Nuce, vice president, Apparel & General Merchandise, GS1 US, a supply chain standards organization. “A more precise level of inventory visibility ensures the retailer knows where their product is in the supply chain. Standards, such as Electronic Product Code (EPC) enabled Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), are allowing leading retailers to pinpoint their inventory in real time,” she explains. “By using RFID, a retailer can inventory 20,000 items per hour at 99 percent accuracy or higher. All of this means a simpler, more efficient way to deliver on the promise to the consumer.” Furthermore, “by combining RFID-enabled inventory and source tagging with smarter, more sophisticated electronic article surveillance (EAS), retailers gain real-time insight into the supply chain, from what is available to sell via online and in-store channels to how much is needed on the shelf,” adds Sell.

3. Become a part of a B2B e-procurement network. “B2B [or e-procurement] networks can help companies predict supply chain disruptions and act quickly to adapt business processes,” says Sundar Kamakshisundaram, vice president, Procurement and Business Network Solutions, Ariba, an SAP company. “Businesses need to know their entire supply chain – not just their suppliers, but their suppliers’ suppliers, too,” he says.

Using a B2B procurement network can “help [retailers] move from responding to risk to proactively predicting it to create advantage and get ahead of supply chain disruption,” he says. That’s because “business networks, and the cloud-based technologies underlying them, have made it possible for more efficient buyer/supplier collaboration.”

4. Make sure your marketing and supply chain teams are in sync. “When executing a promotion, a lot of retailers overlook the alignment of the supply chain and marketing teams, which is crucial [if you want] to successfully launch a promotion,” says Pat Sullivan, senior vice president, Promotions Management, HAVI Global Solutions, a consulting company. By having marketing alert the supply chain team ahead of time that a big promotion is coming up, “the supply chain team can determine how much product is needed to prevent falling short [and] how the product will be shipped,” minimizing, or avoiding, delays or disruptions.

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