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Inventory availability: are your omni-channel operations truly profitable?


At first glance, many traditional retailers appear to be delivering integrated omni-channel operations. But a closer look shows that many have simply achieved cross-channel inventory visibility: a stopgap solution at best. Industry experts agree that this isn’t enough to compete in today’s marketplace – the essential goal for serious retailers is single inventory availability. And there’s a good reason why, says Craig Sears-Black, managing director of supply chain platform Manhattan Associates.

Craig Sears-Black, Manhattan Associates

Craig Sears-Black, Manhattan Associates

The key to building a great 21st century brand experience is customer-centricity. And in the new retail arena, customer expectations are increasing. If they want a product sent to their home or office, it is no longer good enough to deliver it three days later. If two-hour click and collect from a local store is a viable alternative, it should be possible to allocate that stock for two-hour local delivery.

Any product in stock anywhere in a retailer’s network now needs to be available for delivery to any channel. That requires more than just a single view of inventory – it demands total control. Fail to deliver this level of cross-channel service and they risk losing customers to the brands that are set up to do it brilliantly.

The hard truth is that most traditional retailers still have a long way to go. But if they can achieve the inherent operational fluidity built in to pure online retail operations and marry that with the power and flexibility that a store network offers, they will find themselves in pole position to compete and win customer share.

The question is, what’s the smartest route forward?

Dealing with complex order flexibly

Cross-channel returns. Real-time order changes. Direct shipping from the supplier. Shortening lead times. On-time delivery. Instant returns availability. In-transit fulfilment flows for single delivery. These are all challenges even the world’s most successful retailers face; yet many are starting to find way of managing these flexibly and profitably, using the real-time status of stock.

By establishing a single stock pool across the entire business, retailers can gain visibility into every detail of an order and can manage changes, returns and exchanges in the most effective way for their business. Products can be returned in-store, even if an order was placed online, with the items immediately made re-available to sell, if that’s the smart decision.

The result? The business can deliver more orders, incredibly flexibly, at the best possible margins.

Simple control of a single cross-channel inventory

Formulating the right inventory outcomes delivers benefits in three key areas.

1. Keep every promise and make it personal

It’s no longer good enough to show a customer which inventory is available in which channel. Customers don’t care where your stock is located – they just want you to deliver on the promises you make. Items the customer has chosen must be available for picking, packing and delivery on the right date, in the right location.

By consolidating order information and transactions into one repository, complex calculations can now be made in an instant, based on real-time stock locations, availability and delivery needs, no matter how, where or when an order is made to meet increasingly demanding customer expectations.

2. Improve the bottom line

Inventory levels directly affect the bottom line. Retailers need to reduce their investment in stock holdings and create a single inventory that’s available online, in store or via click and collect. This means less handling too, reducing the average cost per order.

A single inventory also makes it easier to deliver orders from the most profitable location. An online order can be fulfilled from a store near the customer, rather than from a dedicated online distribution centre hundreds of miles away, making the order faster to fulfil and protecting the profit margins on every sale.

3. Play with the best

Omni-channel operations put incredible pressure on IT and supply chain teams. Moving from one integrated view of inventory to one integrated approach to fulfilment can be complex. Supply chains are becoming increasingly fragmented too.

Treating all inventory as a single channel allows retailers to calculate the best stock sources and delivery routes. It widens the range of inventory available for sale too, and reduces storage costs by enabling shipping direct from suppliers or factory, if appropriate. It’s something that, until now, online players like Amazon have used as a differentiator. Traditional retailers can now level the playing field.


Omni-channel retailing demands a new approach to managing inventory if retailers are going to be able to meet today’s customer expectations. Focusing on cross-channel visibility is no longer enough; success in today’s retail world demands real-time, single inventory availability.

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