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As well as being one of the founding fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin was a noted inventor, scientist and author who in 1789 famously wrote, “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” Grocers nowadays can add one more certainty: out-of-stocks. In fact, out-of-stocks have been at an 8 percent average rate for as long as I can remember.
The good news is that several new solutions are available to reduce out-of-stocks substantially.
First, a joint-industry group has developed two tools to help trading partners analyze and improve what’s being called on-shelf availability. This is a key issue today, according to joint research by The Trading Partner Alliance (TPA), formed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and Food Marketing Institute (FMI).
A best practices guide addresses causes and solutions to out-of-stocks across five areas: store execution, ordering and execution, forecasting, manufacturing, and category management and merchandising. It also identifies process owners to deal with these product availability issues throughout the supply chain.
Two other solutions to the out-of-stock challenge were exhibited in the Technology Zone at the recent FMI Connect event in Chicago. San Francisco-based Simbe Robotics showed off Tally, a robot billed as the world’s first robotic autonomous shelf-auditing and analytics solution for the retail industry. The other was image recognition software from Trax, a Singapore-based company with U.S. headquarters in Duluth, Ga.
Let’s get acquainted with the robot first. Simbe’s solution consists of one or more mobile robots that roam the store to capture, report and analyze the state and availability of merchandise and help ensure compliance with a product category’s planogram. The robots audit shelves for out-of-stock items, low-stock items, misplaced items and pricing errors. The idea is to automate the most mundane, repetitive tasks in retail execution.
Tally, which looks like a thin, vertical stereo speaker, stands 38 inches tall, weighs 30 pounds, and has an adjustable and modular mast of sensors for capturing shelf data. The overall height is variable, depending on the height of the shelves.
Incredibly, Tally is designed to operate safely during normal store hours, alongside shoppers and employees, by moving out of the way of foot traffic. Simbe CEO and founder Brad Bogolea told me that Tally is being tested by several mass-market retailers.
Also at FMI Connect, Trax demonstrated its retail image recognition and analytics services, which are available in more than 40 markets globally. Its computer vision algorithms allow suppliers of fast-moving consumer goods to keep track of their products on retail shelves. A sales rep uses a standard smartphone with a special app to take a picture of the shelf. He sends it to the Trax cloud, and a full shelf analysis comes back in a few minutes. The sales rep can use the mobile report for immediate corrective action in the store. Same-day web reports are made available to management teams online.
Recognizing out-of-stocks is the simplest task that the software can provide. In the larger sense, it can verify planogram compliance, which is a key to category management programs.
Image recognition, robots and new tools for on-shelf availability. Even Ben Franklin would appreciate these 21st-century inventions.