Concealing Your Shame

 There is no shame in not knowing; the shame lies in not finding out. – Russian Proverb

Customer expectations of brick & mortar retailers are changing.

Most retailers are failing miserably at meeting those expectations with regard to providing information about stock availability at their stores online.

I’m not talking about whether or not they have sufficient stock to meet customer demand – it’s even more basic than that. When a customer is looking to visit your store can you even properly tell him/her what your stock status actually is?

Recently, I decided to anecdotally put one particular store to the test on this. I chose this store for the following reasons:

  1. They actually publish their store on hand balances online for all the world to see in real time.
  2. They offer a “buy online, pick up in store” option.
  3. I visit the store fairly frequently and it’s about 1 kilometre from my house.

On the day of my “study”, I only had 2 items I needed. Before leaving, I called up the pages for those items on my iPhone and went to the store. When I got there, I refreshed the pages to retrieve the most up-to-date stock information and compared that number to what I actually found on the shelf. After that, I wandered around the aisles and picked a few other items at random and did the same thing.

Now before I share the results, there are some rather significant caveats that I need to mention:

  1. The inventory is updated in real time, but obviously it’s based on POS transactions. When I did the “physical count” on the shelf, it’s certainly possible that some other customer had picked the item off the shelf but had not yet paid for it.
  2. The study was performed on a busy Saturday afternoon about 4 weeks before Christmas. Not exactly ideal timing for ensuring that the store was stocked neatly or that there wasn’t a lot of product floating around in customer baskets as per point 1 above.
  3. I know that this store has a very large back room and doesn’t keep separate on hand balances for shelf stock and backroom stock. In cases where my count is short, it’s certainly possible that the product was in the back room or displayed elsewhere in the store.
  4. When I got a count discrepancy, I did not ask the staff for help in locating the “missing” items. As I mentioned, we are only weeks away from Christmas and I wasn’t about to waste people’s time finding items that I had no intention of purchasing.

The first item on my list was a carbon dioxide cylinder for our SodaStream. Note that I’ve attempted to crop out any information that would reveal who the retailer is (logos, shelf tags, product identifiers, etc.). This won’t stop some of you from recognizing them, but I can’t do much about that.

Okay, back to the SodaStream cylinder. When I reached the shelf and refreshed the page on my phone, here’s what I got:

Wow, 337 units in stock! (As an aside, this retailer almost always shows the aisle number in the store where the product can be found, which is stellar – not sure why it’s not shown in this case, but it’s a product I buy often, so I knew exactly where to go).

Now here’s the shelf:

You can’t see them all in this image, but the actual count was 18 units, far short of 337. Obviously this is either a massive inventory record error or there’s a pallet of them on a secondary display or in the back room. So long as they sell fewer than 18 per day, buyers of this item will be happy.

RESULT: INCONCLUSIVE

The second item on my list was a large, bark deterring dog collar for my mother-in-law’s dog (it uses vibration or noise to deter barking, not electric shocks, so don’t judge me!). As you’ll see below, my phone told me to go to aisle 56 to find 1 unit:

Unfortunately when I got to the aisle, there was none to be found. I spent a few minutes searching all of the overheads, pegs and bins in this aisle and one aisle over in each direction and couldn’t find it.

RESULT: FAIL

While in aisle 56, I picked another random item (mulberry scented dog shampoo) and looked it up on my phone:

And here is the shelf:

6 units – right on the nose.

RESULT: SUCCESS

Now, how about this Bissell Little Green pet stain remover?

This item is on promotion for $25.00 off and I found an end aisle display with 12 units:

…and one more unit in the home in aisle 60:

So that’s 13 on the shelf vs 32 units reported on hand. But because this item is promoted, there is almost certainly more in the back room to replenish the shelves.

RESULT: INCONCLUSIVE

On to aisle 17 to check out the Stanley chalk line reels.

Hoping to find 5…

…and 5 it is.

RESULT: SUCCESS

You get the picture (no pun intended). I also documented a few other items in the same way, but I’ll spare you the photographic evidence:

  • Richard Self Adhesive Drywall Tape: 3 online, 4 on the shelf (RESULT: PRETTY CLOSE)
  • T.S.P. Heavy Duty Cleaner (400g): 10 online, 4 on the shelf (RESULT: FAIL)
  • Soft Glide Cabinet Hinge: 12 online, none to be found anywhere (RESULT: EPIC FAIL)
  • OOK Picture Hanging Kit: 14 online, 13 on the peg (RESULT: PRETTY CLOSE)

In summary:

  • There were 3 failures out of 9 (I’m counting “Pretty Close” and “Inconclusive” in the success column for fairness)
  • 2 of those 3 failures could have resulted in a lost sale on that day (i.e. the reported on hand was > 0, but there was no stock to be found on the sales floor).
  • With regard to the bark deterrent collar (one of the items I actually wanted to buy), there’s more to the story:
    • When I got home, I ordered the item for in store pickup and the on hand immediately dropped to zero
    • Later that day, I received an email notification and a phone call informing me that the item wouldn’t be available for pickup until the next day
    • From this, I’m surmising that they couldn’t find it in the store and had one delivered from a nearby store overnight
    • The next day, I picked up the item at my home store – lost sale averted

So what was the point of all this and why did I choose “Concealing Your Shame” as the title? Am I trying to shame this retailer for what (anecdotally and with all of my previous caveats applied) looks like imperfect performance?

Au contraire!

Store on hand accuracy is not easy to achieve and this retailer is to be highly commended for their confidence and willingness to be as transparent to customers as possible.

No, the shame is reserved for those retailers who have on hand balances readily available in their systems but choose not to share it. I guess the thinking is that you can’t fail if you don’t try.

I say it again: customer expectations are changing.

If you’re afraid to share your on hand balances with your customers, I have 2 questions:

  1. Why? (you already know why)
  2. What are you doing about it?

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