Off the Shelf

On the whole, modern retailers in India and their vendors do need to focus on on-shelf availability as a key area for increasing the productivity of the existing stores. For many stores, there is significant room an increase in sales. With real estate and operating overheads remaining high, every extra rupee of sales squeezed out of the current square footage will contribute directly to the bottom-line, a fact that Indian retailers cannot ignore today.

You’ve walked into your neighbourhood supermarket with your shopping list. The particular detergent that your spouse had put on the list isn’t on the shelf and the sales associate is not sure whether they have any in stock (maybe you get the standard line: “whatever we have in stock is already on the shelf”).

You’ve forgotten your mobile at home so you can’t call to check whether a substitute brand or different pack size will suffice, so you walk out with the item still on your list.

And into the local kirana store. The brand and pack size that you were looking for isn’t there either, but the shop-owner says that he will have it in stock sometime during the next 3-4 hours, and can send it over to your home. Or, he suggests, you could also buy an alternative brand (or pack size). At the end of that conversation you would have very likely bought the alternative offered, or would have agreed to home-delivery of the item you were seeking. (A study by the Institute of Grocery Distribution in the UK in 2006 discovered that, in case of non-availability, 40% of the customers end up buying the same product somewhere else.)

Some people would be cheering, “Yea, more power to the underdog small retailer”. But the point of this example is not the victory of the local, independent kirana over the chain-store. The point I am illustrating is that the difference in the business models and formats of these two competitors, and the impact of on-shelf availability.

Modern convenience stores and supermarkets, and the format that is being largely adopted by the chain-stores in India, is the western model of self-service. Compared to the kirana-model of “being served”, modern retailers depend on product being available and visible on the shelf. Very clearly, visibility and availability drive sales.

And in the current environment, retailers are or should be looking at squeezing more sales out of their existing stores (see the earlier column – “Priority #1: Same Store Growth”).

On-Shelf Availability is driven by a number of factors – some are within the retailer’s control, while others are not.

On the vendor side, availability is driven by a number of factors. In India, vendors themselves can be small to mid-sized companies, with distribution systems that are poor in terms of information linkages. The supply chain may comprise of several levels of stockists, distributors, and wholesalers, with an inherent and in-built delay in information exchange. In this situation there is always a phase difference between demand (non-availability) and supply.

Other than the phase-difference, the order-fill rates at the vendor’s end can also be poor due to supply constraints. The quantity available in stock for a certain product at a regional or state level can frequently be lower than the requirement, and in such cases the manager, or the distributor, can end up allocating the available stocks.

These causes can lead to availability that is as low as 60-65% on average, even among the popular products. “Good” vendors can have supply rates of 85-90%, but even in these there is a high variance.

However, the interesting thing is that a very high proportion of stock-outs (around 75% according to the 2006 IGD study) can be attributed to problems within the individual store. These include poor in-store disciplines, lack of awareness of the impact of low availability, too much work for the sales associates or the lack of motivation.

(For instance, 35% of sales executives in British study did not plan to pursue retail selling as a long-term career. In a study carried out by Third Eyesight a few months ago, with retail was being seen as a “growth industry”, that figure in India was about 55% and was closely correlated with the frontline attrition rates being witnessed by Indian retailers.)

One of the critical factors in how on-shelf availability is handled is the very different perception various people have of its importance. The store manager or a sales executive may directly correlate lack of availability with lost sales (and lost incentives), while a category merchant may not find it as critical since he or she may be able to balance the margins through the mix of product and the aggregation of sales across stores. The first critical element to be fixed is to have a common view on the importance of availability communicated across the retail organisation.

The second important element is highlighting the visibility of stock within the store – isn’t it surprising that despite the small size of back-office space, how stock that is showing “on the system” can be so invisible?! The product may be stacked in inaccessible boxes, or may have just been kept in the wrong location.

On busy days and during busy hours, merchandise can arrive at the store and simply “disappear” off the radar for a few hours, since the staff may not have had the time to take the stock into the store’s inventory. It sits in the shipping boxes waiting for stock intake, which may well happen after the peak selling hours have passed.

Sometimes the availability issue comes up because the product is very popular, and it becomes virtually impossible to maintain a high availability during the critical selling windows – a typical example may be health and beauty products or popular snacks, where the aggregate availability may be high during the week, but abysmally low during the peaks. A key feature of these categories is also the large number of SKUs, which can be cause for substitutions in the supply chain, and therefore poor availability of a particular SKU.
On the other hand, fresh produce and dairy may show poor availability if daily reports are configured for end-of-day rather than beginning-of-day stock-checks, since fresh vegetables, fruit, fish and dairy may actually be taken into the store during the early hours in the morning.

Many people believe that the best way to tackle these issues is through information technology.

However, IT is only a tool that can enable a business if the processes are robust and people are attuned to a common objective.

The correct sequence, as for many other aspects of business, is to tackle the people issue first. Awareness and common understand can only happen through consistent communication and widespread training. (The 2007 study by IGD (UK) on this issue highlighted the fact that 61% of the sales associates had not received any formal training, while 23% had no communication about on-shelf availability.)

This communication needs to be not just within the organisation, but across the retailer and vendor relationship. This process is, unfortunately, not enabled by the very tactical and adversarial nature of the buyer-supplier relationship. Retail buyers don’t easily share point-of-sale information with vendors due to a variety of real and perceived barriers – confidentiality, power-issues, competitive pressures.

Fortunately, although it is still early days, chain-stores and vendors in India are already beginning to work together. Very often the exercise is actually being led by the larger, multi-national vendors who have been exposed to the concepts of Efficient Consumer Response (ECR) and Collaborative Planning, Forecasting & Replenishment (CPFR) – concepts that have been around for about 15 years.

However, these frameworks require a significant amount of joint business planning as well as point-of-sale visibility being provided to the vendor, and both of those aspects are still weak in the Indian modern retail ecosystem. Such degree of high transparency will only come in with further maturation of the retail businesses and the vendor relationships. Some of the modern retailers are already able to see consistent availability of over 90% through these efforts, and as word spreads, hopefully so will the practice.

Creating a culture of transparency and communicating the desired levels of availability is the foundation on which robust processes can be built for checking and reporting availability, which then can be enabled through technology. The correct sequence, therefore, is People-Process-Technology, and not the other way round.

In closing, let me show the other side of the coin (after all, this column is titled “Devil’s Advocate”!). The additional sales from better availability are very seductive, and can be very profitable, but up to a point. After a certain level, the law of diminishing returns takes over as the cost of maintaining high availability exceeds the additional margin. Particularly in perishables the possibility of product expiry and spoilage is quite high. Of course, during festive occasions there may be no option but to ensure high availability of perishables such as gift packs of snacks and packaged foods, even at the risk of spoilage or expiry.

Having said that, on the whole, modern retailers in India and their vendors do need to focus on on-shelf availability as a key area for increasing the productivity of the existing stores. For many stores, there is significant room an increase in sales. With real estate and operating overheads remaining high, every extra rupee of sales squeezed out of the current square footage will contribute directly to the bottom-line, a fact that Indian retailers cannot ignore today.