Retailers should review their stock-counting processes and take back control as the current crisis puts more pressure than ever on costs and margin, says Mike Finch, operations director, retail solutions, EMEA at Zebra Technologies

Stock counting is not one of the sexiest aspects of retail and it is also not seen as strategic.

However, inventory accuracy and on-shelf availability have never been more important and it is time the spotlight was shone on them for a change.

The competitive environment has shifted dramatically in the last 10 years, a shift that has played to the benefit of the discounters, and created a shock to the middle-market retailers.

Stark proof comes from the recent news that one discounter is now listed in the top-four UK grocers, and another could soon to join that list.

What this means is that operational excellence in all areas and channels is critical to the maintenance of margin and market share.

The ‘new normal’ predicted in early 2021 never arrived and retailers are still having to fight hard to retain and win customers, and demonstrate that the experience they provide in-store is more compelling than that offered online.

Now the struggle for some looks to be existential as inflation continues to soar and consumer confidence falls in the wake of high costs, political uncertainty at home and the impact of events abroad that are causing a doubling in energy costs.

Keeping customers happy

Among the many things that retailers need to get absolutely right in this environment are high stock availability and stock accuracy.

Consumers always have a choice to walk away if what they want is not available, and they have been exercising that choice much more aggressively in recent years.

According to ESW, more consumers are happy to shop cross-border for items they cannot get at home, with millennials, in particular, making repeat overseas transactions.

The answer to ensuring higher on-shelf availability and stock accuracy lies with store staff.

They are the best people to manage these processes not only because they know their stock best, but they are empowered by being responsible for tasks that are so critical to the success of the store.

Keeping staff happy

There are two ways to get buy-in: first, to communicate that stock counting is not just a necessity for audit purposes but an essential tool of customer experience and satisfaction that supports and boosts sales and basket sizes.

The link should be made to the all-important data pool that enables head office and store managers to make strategic decisions about ranging, assortment, promotions and markdowns and all the replenishment processes around those – in-store and further back into the supply chain.

Second, what may seem like an onerous, manual process can be automated to give everyone more control.

Self-directed scanning is more economical than outsourced programmes. Because retail associates know their stores better than third-party vendors, they can conduct faster, more successful inventories with greater programme flexibility and efficiency.

As a result, they can schedule, make decisions and resolve issues quickly among themselves. This is what empowerment looks like.

Proof that correcting inventory inaccuracies works comes from a three-year study among retailers by ECR, which found that it leads to increased sales of 4% to 8%.

No one is suggesting it is not going to be tough over the next 12 to 18 months, but the retailers that can maintain high sales and service levels through better on-shelf availability will appeal to a consumer base that will need as much help as it can get to shop smart.

Lastly, armed with more accurate, up-to-date stock files, retailers are in a much better position to use the time that was probably lost from looking for shelf gaps caused by bad stock files.

They can work on all the other areas that lead to poor availability such as collaborating more closely with suppliers to match replenishment to demand and improve sell-through at the highest possible price.

To learn more about transforming stocktakes with Zebra SmartCount, contact Alex Webb at: or +44 74089 62454.

Mike Finch is operations director, retail solutions, EMEA at Zebra Technologies