Retail Supply Chain: Do You Really Know What’s On Your Shelves?

| Retail

taking picture of products

Here Scandit’s Vice President Product, CTO and co-founder Christian Floerkemeier explores what bricks-and-mortar retailers should pay attention to in their supply chain management, why digital technologies beat manual processes and how smartphone scanning can help..

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected the supply chain?

Grocery retail supply chains have seen the biggest changes. There has been a surge in online grocery shopping. 

For example, Instacart, who offers grocery delivery and pick-up service in the United States and Canada and is proving more popular than ever. 

Customers visit the company’s official site – Instacart features a wide range of products from multiple retailers – to shop and place an order. An Instacart shopper then manages the order, picks up the items at the store, and delivers the groceries to the customer. 

As a result, Instacart has seen a phenomenal increase in order volumes amid the coronavirus outbreak. The company hired over 300,000 full-service shoppers during the peak of the pandemic to meet this surging demand. These stats show how the supply chain and e-commerce customer trends have changed and keep shifting as it relates to brick-and-mortar retail. 

Another trend that influences the supply chain: Covid-19 has given contactless shopping and mobile self-scanning an additional boost. Most years, retailers can typically expect a five to ten percent annual growth rate. Yet transactions have in parts doubled in March and April.

Why are real-time transparency and supply chain traceability increasingly important?

Brick-and-mortar businesses are forced to compete with giants like Amazon or Zalando. In the case of the latter two, customers can access information pertaining to product selection, availability, and delivery terms. 

This, in turn, raises their expectations when it comes to all other retail settings. Customers can directly compare if certain products are no longer available in-store in the evening, fully aware that online marketplaces are never sold out. 

This is an area where brick-and-mortar stores must keep up with the competition and rise up to the challenge.

How can brick-and-mortar stores optimize their supply chain process?

Many retailers now rely on in-store picking, and this traditionally takes place without technical assistance, which can get tricky as manual in-store processes are weak links in your supply chain. 

A key to effective supply chain management for retailers is to know what’s selling in stores and to ensure on-shelf product availability. Here is one problem, though: retailers often don’t know what’s in their inventory, as their IT systems don’t differentiate between the sales floor and the warehouse. 

As a result, retailers don’t know whether a product is physically on the shelf or whether it still has to be taken out of the box in the warehouse. Another drawback is the need for extra effort. Retailers might check price tags once a month. Yet even walking through the aisles once a day to check on-shelf inventory is not enough. Retailers must keep an eye on this and practice good inventory management to ensure customer satisfaction.  Deploying smartphones with mobile apps for retail employees is one way to help optimize shelf and inventory management workflows:


Customer satisfaction is everything – especially when it comes to supply chain design. But retail employees play an important role

Employees are essentially considered the most important part of the supply chain. 

Here is an example of why this is the case. A French retailer tracked how many steps employees take each day. As it turned out, they walked about 15,000 steps, which is a lot. 

One reason they rack up many miles is when a customer has a question, the employee then proceeds to the shelf, writes down the product number, walks across the store to check with the back office and search inventory data, and then returns to the customer. All the while, the customer is kept waiting. This is frustrating for both parties. 

Digital transformation begins with the employees

A mobile inventory scanner is often not enough.  The device is bulky, is often taken from a shared device pool and only serves one purpose. Equipping employees with individual smartphones – either personal devices or company-provided –  can be used for barcode scanning and provides access to inventory and supply chain data. 

This process allows retailers to give customers reliable data and it also enables employees to assist with inventory management, allowing them to correct price tags for example. This is a very tedious manual process without the use of smartphone-based augmented reality solutions.

One way to simplify processes is computer vision-based retail price label verification. That means you point the smartphone at the shelf, the smartphone software scans the barcode and automatically detects the price. 

An augmented reality overlay identifies whether the price is right or wrong. If it’s the latter, the employee can immediately print out a label with the correct price – thanks to a printer on the employee’s belt – and replace the price tag. This process also enables employees to reorder items at the same time.  

Watch it in action below:


But let’s get back to the self-scanning aspect: employees also play an important role in this setting. Employees must realize the benefits of this self-checkout process as they are the ones who interact and service the customer on the retail sales floor. 

That’s why it is key to involve employees in all technological changes, even if these changes appear to – at first glance – only center on the customer.

How has supply chain management changed in the past 15 years?

Some aspects have not changed much since mobile data collection (MDC) devices entered the market 30 years ago. 

Due to their hefty weight, they are mostly used for selective purposes. Yet even in the precarious time of Covid-19, multiple staff members still share the devices, whose core functionality has actually improved very little in all these years. 

In contrast, commercially available smartphones can feature modern software solutions that can simultaneously read 10 to 15 barcodes. They can work more effectively using augmented reality. Heat maps on shelves can reveal sales volumes and identify popular and top-selling products, for example. 

New software solutions also optimize inbound logistics, making it possible to scan all the codes on a pallet at once versus having to scan each individual logistics unit. These types of processes will be a matter of course in the future.

Rethink and Optimize Retail Operations with Smartphone scanning

Read our Best Practice Guide to learn why smartphones are helping to digitally transform retail operations and why the technology makes sense for under pressure retailers.