As the Winter Olympics are in full swing, we turn our attention to round one of the Retail Week 2014 Omni-lympics - the supply chain slalom.

The first week of the omni-lympics - with data supplied by eCommera - has flown by and while Lizzy Yarnold has been busy winning gold for Great Britain in the skeleton bob, retailers have been battling it out in the first event – the supply chain slalom.

The supply chain slalom is all about optimising stock, while at the same time providing an excellent shopping experience for customers.

In the event, we assessed retailers’ performance across three areas:

  • Is in store inventory visible through online and in store channels?  This is important because it allows customers to make informed decisions about which channel to make a purchase through and therefore providing a better experience.
  • Is there a mechanism in store to find more product information, such as kiosks?  These solutions can help customers to access rich product information in store.
  • Can purchases from one channel be returned through another channel?  This is crucial as customers may decide not to purchase if the returns process is too difficult or costly; cross-channel returns are a must.

Judges were impressed by visibility of products across retailers’ network of stores and warehouses, availability of kiosks in store and those providing a smooth returns experience.

So, who did well?

Electronics retailer Maplin excelled in this event.  Operating in a very competitive space, notorious for tight margins, Maplin offers customers a single view of stock across channels. Whether online, in store or via the call centre, stock visibility is clear. This is underpinned by a strong offering of delivery options including 30 minute click and collect.

Similarly, Oasis and Warehouse offer a single view of stock as well as an impressive range of delivery options including 60 minute, named day and Saturday.

What set the winners apart was visibility of stock across channel. This is a building block of supply chain optimisation but of the 50 retailers we surveyed, only 10% had made progress towards achieving this.

With a single view of stock, retailers can drive cost out of the supply chain by fulfilling orders from the optimum location, while customers benefit from increased delivery options.

Sadly, not all retailers did well at this event; a fair number of ‘wipe-outs’ occurred along the course.  Our research teams received conflicting information from call centres and store staff on product availability, while one of the few retailers benchmarked who offered in-store kiosks, had a unit which didn’t actually work.

Some retailers only offer returns via Collect+ so despite there being 15 convenience stores within five minutes’ walk of a researcher’s house, the nearest site with Collect+ is a 16 minutes’ walk meaning at least half an hour to use this so-called convenient service.

So plenty of room for improvement and all to play for.

Stay tuned as next week, we will run through the second event – the snow-cross channel experience.

Mark Williams, European Sales Director, eCommera