A record crowd of 40,000 people attended the National Retail Federation (NRF) Big Show in New York City this week to see what new solutions and innovations software suppliers had in store for 2020 and beyond. The usual themes were still very present as solution providers and retailers alike were more than happy to talk about omni-channel, mobility, and machine learning, to name a few. This year, two recurring themes jumped out at me: an emphasis on the store’s role in omni-channel and the use of robots to streamline processes.
The Store’s Role in Omni-Channel
For years, the store has been the weak link in the omni-channel experience. Inventory management at the store is increasingly difficult as customers move items around the store. The role of store associates is also changing as more retailers are turning to the store for e-commerce fulfillment. The end result has been an increase in interest around distributed order management and how to seamlessly integrate the store into the digital experience.
Distributed order management allows an organization to capture all information in the order management process across all relevant channels. This includes the entry of the order, sourcing, payments, and fulfillment. It also spans all channels of sales operations. The benefit is that it doesn’t matter where an order originates. All fulfillment channels have access to the information and the retailer can appropriately allocate the inventory depending on stock levels, demand requirements, and timing of fulfillment. I met with a number of software providers that are enabling retailers to leverage the store for e-commerce fulfillment using their DOM application.
Manhattan Associates continues to expand its Active Omni solution suite, which includes order management, point-of-sale (POS), and customer service. Its order management application is enabling retailers to use the physical store for e-commerce fulfillment. This includes buy online, pick up in store, ship to store, and ship from store. These processes are changing the role a store associate needs to play, as it now goes way beyond customer engagement and service. Manhattan has also expanded its digital self-service as part of the solution suite. The digital self service allows customers to track their orders, initiate returns or exchanges, and most importantly, expand the order pick-up window. This is important for allowing the customer to receive their order when they want.
Tecsys is another company that is using its order management system to enable store fulfillment. One of the more interesting things that Tecsys showcased was their “available to promise” engine. This tool allows retailers to change the percentage of inventory that is available for e-commerce sales based on customer traffic. For example, a retailer that knows that weekdays are slower for foot traffic may allow up to 90 percent of stock to be sold online Monday through Friday. However, on weekends, when foot traffic is up, the retailer may drop that percentage down to 60 percent to ensure they are not pulling inventory that a customer in the store may want to buy. The Tecsys order management solution also enables retailers to ship items to a store for customer pick-up and consolidate orders for delivery.
A third company that showcased its order management solution to improve the store’s role in the omni-channel experience was enVista. One interesting thing that this company is doing is integrating its order management system with social platforms. Over the holiday season, enVista integrated with Instagram to allow customers to shop directly through the platform. The order management system pushed inventory positions to Instagram ensuring that customers were seeing real-time inventory availability at specific stores.
Zebra Technologies showcased a collaboration with Six15 Technologies to use head-up display with Zebra’s FulfillmentEdge technology. The result is a wearable display that streamlines order picking in the warehouse or the store. The solution runs on Android and integrates a Bluetooth ring scanner. The display gives a visual representation of a pick pack and highlights what items an associate needs to pick. The store associate can scan the barcode on the shelf and the display will notify them if it is the right item, and if so, how many are needed. The idea is to improve productivity and pick accuracy at the shelf level.
Finally, JDA talked a lot about their partner ecosystem for improving the store’s role in omni-channel. One area of particular interest is the use of in-store IoT to improve inventory accuracy. RFID partners include Zebra and Intel for inventory management and inventory tracking within the store. JDA is also partnering with Panasonic to monitor store shelves with cameras. This helps retailers identify stock outs on the fly. The data is fed into the JDA Luminate platform for analysis.
Robots continue to be a hot topic in retail. Companies are continuing to invest in robotics technologies, deploying bots at both the warehouse and the store. Part of the trouble with these technologies is deciding which one is right for your organization. HighJump has launched an initiative to help solve that problem. The company sees the need for robots in the warehouse and has partnered with Fetch Robotics, Locus Robotics, and Geek+ Robotics to integrate with their WMS. HighJump can help customers determine which solution is right for their warehouse environment by looking at specific use cases such as each picking, goods to person, mobile manipulation, and sortation to name a few.
A second example of robotic deployment that I saw was SmartSight from Zebra Technologies. This autonomous mobile robot is an inventory management machine. Literally. The robot roams the store scanning shelves and makes a digital twin of the aisle, comparing what is on the shelves with what is supposed to be there. Once it has identified a stock out, it sends a message to a store associate with the item, location, and quantity needed to restock the shelf.
NRF 2020 was a big, busy event, as always. This year, the store came roaring back to life with the goal of becoming an integral part of the omni-channel experience. At the heart of making this happen is distributed order management systems, and the suppliers I spoke with are pushing their order management solutions to new heights to achieve this goal. Retailers are also becoming more interested in using robots to help make inventory management and fulfillment practices more efficient. This is one area that I think will continue to grow, as the collaboration between people and machines becomes more important.