• Inventory/Warehouse
  • Retail

Mobile Barcoding and Warehouse Automation for Retail Inventory

Written by Elias Schoelmann
November 21, 2019

Retail enterprises must automate their inventory processes with mobility in order to stay ahead.

Retail enterprises must automate their inventory processes with mobility in order to stay ahead.

The retail industry is where many people first experience mobile barcoding devices. This is no surprise since retail relies on inventory management software and hardware to track, procure and supply its products.

Supply chain pressures from commoditization, tariffs and increasingly short delivery times due to Amazon’s drive to same-day shipping all impact retail organizations. Omnichannel fulfillment and e-commerce put further demand on retail supply chains to meet taxing customer expectations.

In order to remain at the competitive forefront, retail organizations are turning to efficiency-producing technologies to like mobile barcoding and digital warehouse automation to gain tighter control and oversight over inventory across the enterprise and leave outdated manual processes behind.

A 2019 Warehousing Vision Study conducted by Zebra Technologies indicated that 80% of warehousing, distribution and fulfillment centers plan to invest in more automation and human augmentation technology by 2024. Due to the high level of manual labor still taking place in inbound and outbound areas of the warehouse, these places remain high on the priority list for automation.

Also Read: Humanizing Technology in the Supply Chain »

How Mobile Barcoding Accelerates Retail Warehouse Operations

Receiving, picking, product tracking and shipping are all impacted by your workers’ ability to collect data quickly, efficiently and accurately. Real-time use of this data can help retail companies stay on top of their inventories and implement new strategies in their warehouses, distribution centers and storefronts.

Mobile inventory software built on mobile barcoding technology can help gain better control and visibility in their warehouses or storerooms.

Mobile barcoding automates manual processes otherwise performed by hand for inventory transactions – from receiving to putaway, picking, floor sales and more. Mobility can increase accuracy to 99% or more, productivity by 30% and efficiency by 25%.

Barcoding technology with mobile data collection software also improves retail inventory management by helping businesses:

Prevent Retail Inventory Shortages and Stockouts

Real-time mobile inventory is essential to creating accurate visibility and minimizing shortages and stockouts.

Real-time mobile inventory is essential to creating accurate visibility and minimizing shortages and stockouts.

Customers who visit retail locations expect to find shelves properly stocked with the merchandise marketed by the business. When inventory that’s supposed to be there can’t be found, even “in the back” (the warehouse), customers are quick to stop doing business with that retailer. Modern customers will not accept excuses for a poor buying experience. When fulfillment centers are shipping to enterprise customers, an unexpected stockout can create costly – if not devastating – delays.

Ensuring businesses have the necessary products on hand is essential to making your customers happy. Businesses have to also be careful not to overstock, so they don’t lose money to unsold merchandise and excess storage costs. If a retailer doesn’t have the product the consumer or business buyer is looking for, it is simple enough to hop on a laptop or phone and find a competitor that does.

IHL consulting group research discovered overstocks and out-of-stocks cost global retailers $1.1 billion in sales annually. Modern Materials Handling suggested businesses need to avoid sweeping things under the rug and find permanent ways of dealing with overstocks and stock-outs. Instead of piling excess inventory for massive sales and cutting into overhead costs, real-time reporting can optimize and balance only the merchandise levels required.

Mobile barcoding can reduce on-hand stock and minimize stock-outs by capturing each inventory movement and recording its stock levels and locations as each transaction occurs. These transactions are communicated to the ERP via mobile devices in real-time, creating a system of high-accuracy transparency which can be used to redirect resources and replenish low inventory before a stockout occurs. The productivity gains achieved with mobile barcoding can help retailers turn stock faster and avoid common retail inventory problems.

Read More: 3 Ways to Accelerate Inventory Management »

Abandon Paper Processes

Keeping track of inventory might seem simple on the surface. The amount of products that come into a retail space is jotted down. As customers buy products, the numbers are subtracted from the total.

However, Business 2 Community stated traditional inventory management procedures have a variety of blind spots. Miscommunications between suppliers and retailers cause shipments of needed products to come in late, incorrectly logged data leads to faulty projections and infrequent counts may miss product degradation, damage, and theft.

Mobile barcode scanners with inventory control software can help retailers eliminate paper-based processes.

Mobile barcode scanners with inventory control software can help retailers eliminate paper-based processes.

Managing retail inventory using manual processes, such as pen and paper counts or spreadsheets with manual data entry (or no system at all), is no longer tenable in a post-Amazon world. Paper processes make it impossible to move quickly, track and trace inventory, view actual stock levels or anticipate consumer demands.

Replacing these manual processes with digital process automation and mobility, or mobile barcoding solutions, can overhaul and streamline retail inventory management practices. Retailers gain agility, flexibility, visibility, speed, cost savings and more.

Multichannel Merchant said retailers should prepare to abandon old ideas and inventory and adopt technology and new strategies, such as enterprise mobility for the supply chain. But mobility strategies shouldn’t be viewed as quick fixes. A mobile supply chain is the wave of the present and future of retail, even if it requires some initial investments in new technologies like mobile barcoding.

Simplify Inventory Counts

One way to limit disruptions is to adapt proven successful inventory strategies to newer, more efficient technologies. At the same time, new technology should allow workers to perform more inventory activities at higher volume and in a shorter period of time.

Computer World shared information from IHL interviews that said most retail brands only perform one full inventory count a year. Of these counts, discrepancies were common – some companies’ numbers were off by as much as 25%. Companies that perform more regular cycle counts must devote more work hours to keep inventory levels more up to date – with little to no advantage in accuracy. If retailers want inventory to be a priority, they need to find ways to consistently account for stock levels and product movements.

Mobile inventory software with wireless barcode scanners can automate cycle counts with mobile supply chain apps, vastly simplifying and accelerating the process with 99% accuracy or higher. The white paper “Making the Case for Wearable Tech in the Warehouse” suggests finding convenient options that offer both automated data collection solutions and hands-free performance to simplify training and avoid employee resistance to change.

Also Read: The Hidden Costs of Manual Cycle Counting »

Prevent Shrinkage

Performing retail inventory counts once or twice a year leaves a company open to unwelcome surprises. Products can be stolen or damaged, left unsold, perishable items could expire, mislabeled inventory could become lost or counted twice, returned or misplaced items could go overlooked and employee errors could go unnoticed until the product is in demand.

A modern inventory management system employing mobile inventory with barcoding devices provides retailer businesses with a constant stream of up-to-date data, rather than one or two influxes per year. The information captured by employees walking the shelves is delivered directly to managers.

Software ThinkTank recommended using devices that distinguish types of merchandise to reduce shrinkage. Valuable merchandise, products in high demand or perishable items may need more oversight, so retailers should use a system that flags priorities and automates cycle counts. Instead of stockpiling “just-in-case” inventory to compensate for unanticipated shortages, retailers can trust in their stock levels and reduce on-hand inventory by approximately 10%.

Having these functions built into a mobile inventory system extends the power of live ERP inventory data into the hands of your workforce.

Integrating Front and Back Inventory Data with Mobile Devices

Online shopping hasn’t replaced brick-and-mortar retailers, but it has forced stores to change. To stay relevant in the modern world, all retailers have to offer the same information, convenience and data performance as e-commerce merchants. That requires integrating warehouse and storefront inventory data into a single holistic system.

Inbound Logistics indicated modern stores have to give shoppers the advantages of physical space, an online store and an inventory warehouse. Customers need the ability to browse aisles, compare prices and find the stock they are looking for.

Mobile technology doesn’t have to be limited to a retailer’s warehouse, either. Retail stores can provide salesclerks with mobile devices so they can check inventory levels and place orders for out-of-stock products while speaking with in-store shoppers.

Supplying retail employees with mobile inventory solutions makes accomplishing this easier by ensuring movements, sales and stock levels transact against the ERP database as each movement occurs – not hours or days later.

By integrating inventory movements from their storefronts and warehouses, retailers create a total information system. Employees knows exactly what inventory is available when orders need to be made and what products are popular with consumers, based on their user role and user access level. Marketers can use this data to promote specific merchandise while decision-makers are able to accurately communicate with suppliers and forecast future demand.

Also Read: Automating Data Collection Using Mobile Barcoding Software »

An Integrated Data Solution

Connecting front and back inventory control systems creates accuracy and flexibility for material movements.

Connecting front and back inventory control systems creates accuracy and flexibility for material movements.

Warehouses need mobile enterprise applications to automate essential, manual processes if they are to perform at the same speed as the rest of the company. Salesclerks and warehouse workers communicating stock movement through mobile devices provides complete end-to-end visibility.

Internet Retailing published an example of an international retailer employing unified mobile in-store strategies. A toy store was expanding quite quickly and new locations and customers were creating huge amounts of data. The family-owned business was also offering products in-store and online.

The retailer implemented mobile inventory and data collection solutions for its management teams, salesclerks and warehouse workers. Every department reporting inventory movement provided the stock information needed to keep up with expansion.

Warehouse workers using tablets, smartphones or barcode scanners to count and pick inventory all deliver inventory visibility into the hands of the salesclerk. In-store and online sales are delivered as a single data stream to the warehouse, so products can be ready for both customer groups 24/7.

The toy retailer found success by implementing mobile solutions in all departments at the same time. Some companies mobilize different departments in different ways and then find difficulty in getting the various systems to work together. Retailers that wish to expand or integrate their mobile solutions can use a software partner to guide performance toward a single total supply chain mobility solution.

How Mobile Barcoding Optimizes the Retail Supply Chain

Mobile barcoding and similar warehouse automation technologies improve more than site-level inventory processes. Modern mobile inventory control offers big picture benefits for the retail supply chain as a whole. Retail supply chain management software must be scalable and reliable to deliver those benefits long-term.

Keep Pace with Growing Operation Complexity

Packaging Digest reported the rise of e-commerce and mobile shopping has had an effect on how many stock-keeping units a company keeps track of. As customers continue to want more variety and specialization, more SKU numbers are required to fulfill that demand. E-commerce continues to expand globally as well, meaning supply chains will need to carry higher volumes of inventory at greater complexity at speed as well. Shipping and stocking operations will become more complex and expensive as a result, pushing companies to seek out new ways to bring down costs.

Zebra’s Warehousing Vision Study revealed that 83% of organizations plan to increase the number of SKUs carried while 86% of the number of items by 2024. Digital Commerce 360 projects fast-growing global e-commerce sales to top $3.4 trillion in 2019.

To survive the onslaught of new product sales, retailers must invest in technology solutions that squeeze out any remaining inefficiencies. Having real-time movements and stock levels in hand from a mobile device vastly improves retail warehouse and storefront agility and transparency with fewer stockouts.

Inventory accelerators like License Plating for transacting bulk inventory as one item and voice picking for high-volume warehouses offer additional benefits to retail supply chains.

Learn More: Introducing License Plating to Accelerate Inventory Management »

Mitigate Risk Through Inventory Visibility

A 2018 study from Resilinc EventWatch reported that events from geopolitical uncertainty resulted in an increase of 36% year-over-year events impacting the global supply chain. More than 21,000 suppliers and 58,000 supplier sites producing over 550,000 parts “across multiple tiers in the supply chain were potentially affected during 2018,” states an article about the report from Supply Chain Management Review.

In 2019, conflicts such as the Hong Kong riots, Brexit, and U.S.-China trade disputes will likely increase these numbers.

What do global retailers do when their supply chain is interrupted by one of these geopolitical events? They must react quickly and efficiently. In order to do so, they require accurate data to redirect and reallocate resources, including inventory and fixed assets. Retail companies that use mobile barcoding and similar warehouse automation technologies will be able to react with greater agility since their inventory supply and movements are tracked in real time with 365/24/7 visibility.

Companies can’t and shouldn’t have to afford losses from unforeseen disruptions halfway across the world. Having the right technology in place mitigates this risk before the supply chain disruption occurs.

Solving Retail Inventory Problems with Mobile Barcoding and Warehouse Automation

If a retailer decides to use mobile solutions to prevent common retail issues, such as reducing inventory stock-outs or shrinkage, there are a variety of options they could explore.

Wireless barcode scanners are great tools for warehouses or storerooms. Employees point and click to collect company-established data. Point of sales (POS) devices should be utilized by clerks to ensure purchases are included in the complete company infrastructure and automatically deduct sold items from inventory stock levels. New voice control devices provide hands-free solutions to workers who have to work quickly and efficiently.

Voice options are often utilized by retailers who employ larger warehouses forced to keep up with a rapid distribution process. The RFgen white paper “Using Voice-Directed Work in the Supply Chain” states voice-directed work options are very simple to install if businesses work with an established supplier. Retailers should contact a software partner to learn what mobile tools would be right for their store size and product needs.

RFID is an especially useful tool for retail enterprises as well. In an article from Industry Week, contributor Becky Partida noted the benefits of RFID are well-documented even though some companies don’t implement them. Companies use RFID to tag products in retail and manufacturing, putting sensors on items before they are shipped.

“[The benefits] include greater accuracy in tracking inventory, more efficient inventory counting and improved trend forecasting,” Partida said.

The ability for companies to incorporate tracking sensors into their logistics strategy leads to higher productivity and better compliance with industry regulations, improving inventory tracking and assisting other mobile data collection solutions.

To gain the maximum number of benefits from inventory mobility, consider reaching out to a total solution provider that can provide hardware, software, and consulting in one place.