A customer enters a retail establishment, looking for that washer-dryer, hybrid vehicle, blue suit or pair of Jordans. Empowered by limitless web research, chances are she already knows the specs of the product, including features, functions, costs and benefits. No hard sell needed — no need to hone in on the washer-dryer's energy ratings or the hybrid's gas-saving features as selling points.
So what's left for the retail store associate to do? Locate the product within the retail supply chain, close the deal and get it into the customer's hands promptly and efficiently in the manner of her choosing.
The key enabler for this store associate is mobile technology. Smartphones, handhelds and media tablets, along with burgeoning mobile application software, are changing the face of retail operations and the role of store personnel — positioning the store as a gateway to the retail supply chain rather than simply an end point, says Scott Fenwick, senior director of product strategy for consulting firm Manhattan Associates.
"The expectations of the store associate have started to change," Fenwick says. "Now we are looking at them to help maintain inventory, maintain the accuracy of that inventory and fill orders vs. being the product expert. It is starting to shape how we think about those job functions and the types of tools we are able to put in their hands that … 10 years ago we would not have been able to do."
This new model embraces a mobile supply chain, and retail's business rules will need to adjust to meet the competitive opportunities inherent with mobility, Fenwick says. "The retail associate today is interacting with consumers who are just as intelligent as they are about the products."
A March 2010 survey from Art Technology Group, a Cambridge, Mass., provider of cross-channel solutions, found that three-quarters of consumers use two or more retail channels to browse, research and purchase products; nearly one-third use three or more channels. In the coveted 18- to 34-year-old demographic, 41 percent of respondents told ATG they use mobile devices to browse or research products or services.
The power of information
Mobility has granted store personnel greater visibility into the movement and availability of products within the retail pipeline. Fenwick says mobile applications makes supply chain functions similar to those enjoyed in retail corporate offices and distribution centers available at the store level.
"We're now able to fulfill orders whether the inventory is there or not," he says. "If a consumer has a need and I cannot fulfill it right now, through this mobile technology we are able to reach out to the cloud to find out if there are other locations that have that inventory, when it is available and how long it might take to ship.
"In a lot of cases, that might save potential lost sales by preventing that consumer from walking out and going to a competitor," Fenwick says.
As the mobile supply chain continues to gain traction in the retail marketplace, service providers are moving aggressively with tools and applications. UPS has developed a series of smartphone apps designed to assist retailers and other businesses in supply chain management functions.
UPS apps for BlackBerry, iPhone and Android devices are configured to facilitate supply chain functions like shipping and tracking packages, locating UPS facilities via GPS and calculating shipping rates and time-in-transit.
The TradeAbility functions of UPS's apps provide retailers with data for international shipping and receiving so they will know the precise costs for duties and taxes in advance. UPS paperless invoicing systems provide pre-clearance for documentation for international shipping.
Jordan Colletta, UPS vice president of customer technology marketing, says mobile applications are designed to give retailers — particularly smaller companies that lack the technology assets of major merchants and chains — the ability to take control of their supply chains.
"It puts the control into the retailer's hands so they have more information and they can actually execute what they need to execute," Colletta says. "All of a sudden they have the power of information out on location and can make solid decisions to keep the business on track."
Small retailers often take buying trips to stock their store shelves and online catalogs, Colletta says, and must circulate those products for sale almost immediately to realize return on their investments. The mobile supply chain and its array of tools and applications bring precision to the process, he says.
"It leverages the supply chain to the retailers' advantage," he says. "You buy the goods … we know we have the goods [and that they will] be there on Thursday. You go ahead and put the ad in … for the weekend."
Real-time product management
Dwight Klappich, research vice president in supply chain management with Gartner, says that as declining technology costs were galvanizing companies to modernize their supply chain footprints, both large and small organizations were also seeking increased efficiencies amid the global economic crisis.
Supply chains, given their traditional transport and shipping functions, have long had mobile components — trucks with satellite tracking capability, for instance. The key difference in today's technological environment is that data can be transmitted upstream in real-time using mobile devices, Klappich says.
"What has happened is that the technology and communications costs have come down such that you can now basically communicate with that mobile user at a reasonable price, which is expanding the market."
Despite the promise, Fenwick says the expansion of the mobile supply chain won't occur without challenges.
One barrier to adoption is the need for retailers to refresh their stores' technology infrastructure to accommodate mobile processes and be in sync with cross-channel sales and branding opportunities. Additionally, retailers have to adjust to the scale of change management involved in implementing modern mobile supply techniques. Traditionally, retail store operations have focused primarily on point-of-sale, merchandising and managing time and attendance. Now supply chain responsibilities are being added to that mix, creating entirely new processes for store personnel, Fenwick says.
"In this new environment, POS is still a big part of the model, but it's no longer the only part of it," he says. "That's where the mobile technology really starts to make that store kind of a full-fledged participant in the supply chain, functioning just like a full-bore distribution center."
Thanks to M.V. Greene / NRF / Stores