Inventory management has come a long way from being a very manual driven process settled with untimely data, estimations, and inaccuracies. AI is now available to take some of the burden off retailers and can integrate many sources of data to build a better inventory management system.

Transforming Inventory Management: AI Evolution in Retail (Part 3)

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Artificial intelligence (AI) continues to move rapidly within the retail industry. Part 3 of Retail Mashup’s AI and retail industry series continues with inventory management, demand forecasting, and sales optimization (Looking for Part 1 and Part 2).

Inventory plays an important role for any retailer big or small. Too much inventory and you are settled with unmanageable costs. Too little and you are losing out on revenue. When it comes to AI and inventory management, we can separate to three integrated sections: inventory management, demand forecasting, and sales optimization.

Inventory management is the process of overseeing, controlling, and optimizing a company’s inventory of goods and materials. It involves managing the flow of goods from manufacturers to warehouses, and ultimately to retail outlets or customers.

The primary goal of inventory management is to ensure that the right amount of inventory is available at the right time, to meet customer demand while minimizing storage costs and losses due to obsolescence or spoilage.

Historically, inventory management is completed using manually intensive methods like inventory counts, estimation, and trend analysis. AI streamlines and optimizes stocks by taking into account more sources of data on a real-time basis.

Here are some key ways AI is transforming inventory management:

  1. Optimized Stocking Levels: AI can help determine the optimal stocking levels for each product based on factors such as seasonality, trends, and customer behavior. By maintaining the right amount of inventory, retailers can reduce carrying costs and improve profitability.

    Amazon is a pioneer in using AI for inventory management. The company’s warehouses are equipped with robots that use AI algorithms to autonomously move and organize inventory.
  2. Inventory Routing and Replenishment: AI algorithms can optimize the routing of inventory between warehouses, distribution centers, and stores to minimize transportation costs and reduce delivery times. AI can also automate the replenishment process based on real-time sales data and inventory levels.
  3. Inventory Visibility: AI-powered systems provide real-time visibility into inventory levels across the supply chain, enabling retailers to make informed decisions and respond quickly to changes in demand or supply.

    Zara, a fashion retailer, uses AI for demand forecasting and inventory optimization. The company’s AI system analyzes sales data and fashion trends to predict which items will be popular, allowing Zara to adjust its inventory levels and production accordingly.
  4. Supplier Management: AI can analyze supplier performance data to identify trends, predict future performance, and optimize supplier relationships. This can help retailers ensure timely deliveries and maintain optimal inventory levels.
  5. Returns Management: AI can analyze customer return patterns to identify the root causes of returns and implement strategies to reduce them. This can help retailers minimize the impact of returns on inventory levels and profitability reporting. Products that are prone to returns could be managed sooner with engagement.
Amazon uses AI to ensure inventory management is at its optimal level
Amazon uses AI to ensure inventory management is at its optimal level (Source: Amazon)

Demand forecasting is a process used by businesses to predict future customer demand for products or services. It involves analyzing historical sales data, market trends, and other relevant factors to estimate the likely demand for a product or service over a specific period, such as a month, quarter, or year.

Demand forecasting helps businesses make informed decisions about production, inventory management, and pricing, enabling them to meet customer demand more effectively and optimize their operations. According to McKinsey, AI can reduce forecasting errors by 20-50%, leading to a 5-15% reduction in inventory costs. This improvement in forecasting accuracy enables retailers to better anticipate customer demand, optimize inventory levels, and improve customer satisfaction.

AI has enabled retailers to move beyond traditional methods of demand forecasting, which often rely on historical sales data and simplistic models. Instead, AI algorithms can analyze vast amounts of data from various sources, including sales data, market trends, weather patterns, and social media activity, to generate more accurate demand forecasts.

H&M uses AI for demand forecasting to predict which fashion trends will be popular and adjust its production and inventory levels accordingly. The company analyzes sales data, social media trends, and other factors to predict demand and ensure that its stores are stocked with the latest fashion items.

By incorporating these additional data points, AI can uncover hidden patterns and correlations that would be impossible for human analysts to identify.

Cello SCLIS Demand Sensing, with its Brightics AI-based analytics model, enables Samsung Electronics to maximize sales opportunities while avoiding excess inventory to reduce logistics expenses through more accurate and detailed demand forecasting.

Samsung Electronics uses AI to improve its inventory management/demanding forecasting (Source: YouTube)

One of the key advantages of AI in demand forecasting is its ability to provide real-time updates. This means that retailers can adjust their inventory levels and marketing strategies on the fly, based on the latest demand trends. For example, if a particular product suddenly becomes popular due to a viral social media campaign, AI can quickly identify this trend and alert retailers to increase their stock levels.

Lowe’s, a home improvement retailer, uses AI for demand forecasting to predict customer demand for home improvement products. The company analyzes sales data, market trends, and other factors to predict demand and optimize its inventory levels to meet customer needs.

Furthermore, AI enables retailers to personalize their demand forecasting efforts. By analyzing individual customer behavior and preferences, AI algorithms can predict demand at a more granular level, allowing retailers to offer more targeted products and promotions. This personalized approach not only improves forecasting accuracy but also enhances the overall customer experience.

Sales optimization, in the context of inventory management and AI, refers to the use of artificial intelligence (AI) technology to improve sales performance by optimizing inventory levels, pricing strategies, and promotional efforts. AI algorithms analyze a variety of data, including historical sales data, market trends, competitor pricing, and customer behavior, to generate insights and recommendations that can help retailers maximize revenue and profitability.

For example, Sephora, uses AI-powered recommendation engines to personalize product recommendations for customers based on their purchase history, browsing behavior, and preferences. This helps Sephora increase sales by offering relevant products to customers.

In the context of inventory management, AI-powered sales optimization can help retailers identify which products to stock, when to restock them, and at what price to sell them. By analyzing demand patterns and other factors, AI can help retailers ensure that they have the right products in stock at the right time, minimizing stockouts and excess inventory.

AI can also help retailers optimize their pricing strategies by analyzing market conditions and competitor pricing to determine the optimal price for each product. By dynamically adjusting prices based on real-time data, retailers can maximize revenue and profit margins.

Pandora, the jewelry retailer, uses AI for sales optimization by analyzing customer data and trends to optimize its product offerings and pricing strategies. This helps Pandora increase sales by offering products that appeal to its customers.

While this article showcased many benefits from using AI for inventory management, there are several pitfalls that retail brands should be aware of before they invest significant resources into gaining the appropriate capabilities.

  1. Employee Management: Some employees may resist the adoption of AI in inventory and demand management, fearing job displacement or changes in their roles. Organizations must provide adequate training and support to help employees adapt to AI-powered systems. In addition, retailers need to hire a mix of data scientists, cross-function specialists, and leaders to manage the process.
  2. System Integration: Integrating AI systems with existing IT infrastructure can be challenging. Organizations may face compatibility issues, data silos, and the need for additional resources to integrate AI into their operations successfully.
  3. Privacy Concerns: AI systems require access to large amounts of data, including customer information and sales data, raising concerns about data privacy and security. Organizations must ensure that they comply with data protection regulations and implement robust security measures to protect sensitive information.
  4. Cost: Implementing AI systems can be costly, requiring investment in technology, infrastructure, and training. Organizations must carefully assess the cost-benefit ratio of AI adoption and ensure that the benefits justify the investment.
  5. Over-reliance on AI: While AI can improve decision-making, relying too heavily on AI systems without human oversight can lead to errors or misinterpretation of data. Organizations must strike a balance between AI-driven insights and human judgment.
  6. Data Bias: AI algorithms can be biased if they are trained on biased data. This can lead to unfair or discriminatory outcomes, particularly in areas such as demand forecasting and pricing. Organizations must ensure that AI systems are trained on diverse and unbiased data sets.
  7. Lack of Transparency: AI algorithms can be complex and difficult to interpret, leading to a lack of transparency in decision-making. Organizations must strive to make AI-driven decisions transparent and understandable to stakeholders.
  8. Scalability: As organizations grow, the scalability of AI systems can become a challenge. Organizations must ensure that their AI systems can scale to meet the demands of a growing business.

Measuring the success of AI in inventory management can be tricky as there are many moving pieces and integrated components. Its success is usually to assess its impact on business performance.

Here are some relevant metrics:

  1. Inventory Turnover Ratio: This metric measures how efficiently a company manages its inventory by comparing the cost of goods sold to the average inventory level. A higher inventory turnover ratio indicates that inventory is being managed effectively, while a lower ratio may indicate excess inventory or poor inventory management.
  2. Stockout Rate: The stockout rate measures the percentage of time a product is out of stock when a customer wants to purchase it. AI-powered demand forecasting can help reduce stockout rates by ensuring that inventory levels are aligned with customer demand.
  3. Forecast Accuracy: Forecast accuracy measures the extent to which actual sales align with forecasted sales. AI algorithms can improve forecast accuracy by analyzing various data sources and generating more accurate predictions.
  4. Fill Rate: The fill rate measures the percentage of customer demand that is met from existing inventory. A higher fill rate indicates that customer demand is being effectively met, while a lower fill rate may indicate inventory shortages or poor inventory management.
  5. Inventory Carrying Costs: Inventory carrying costs include expenses such as storage, insurance, and obsolescence. AI-powered inventory management can help reduce inventory carrying costs by optimizing inventory levels and minimizing excess inventory.
  6. Customer Satisfaction: Customer satisfaction can be measured through surveys, reviews, and feedback. AI-powered demand management can improve customer satisfaction by ensuring that products are available when customers want to purchase them.
  7. Return on Investment (ROI): ROI measures the financial return on an investment. By comparing the cost of implementing AI in inventory and demand management to the benefits generated, companies can assess the ROI of their AI initiatives.
  8. Gross Margin Return on Inventory Investment (GMROII): GMROII measures how effectively a company is turning inventory into profit. AI can help improve GMROII by optimizing inventory levels and pricing strategies.

Looking ahead, brands can take several strategic steps to ensure success in using AI for inventory management. Firstly, investing in AI talent is crucial. By hiring or training AI experts, brands can develop and implement advanced AI algorithms tailored to their inventory needs. Having a dedicated team of AI professionals enables brands to stay at the forefront of AI technology and maximize its potential in inventory management.

Secondly, integrating AI with existing systems is essential for seamless operations. Brands should ensure that their AI systems for inventory management are integrated with their ERP, CRM, and other systems. This integration enables brands to leverage AI insights across the organization, leading to improved operational efficiency and decision-making.

Moreover, focusing on data quality is paramount. High-quality data is fundamental for the success of AI in inventory management. Brands should prioritize collecting, cleaning, and maintaining accurate and up-to-date data to ensure that their AI algorithms deliver reliable insights.

Continuous improvement is another key aspect. Brands should regularly monitor and refine their AI algorithms for inventory management to maintain effectiveness over time. By evaluating performance and making adjustments as needed, brands can improve accuracy and efficiency.

Collaboration with suppliers and partners is also crucial. Brands should work closely with their suppliers and partners to share data and insights that can improve inventory management. By collaborating, brands and their partners can optimize inventory levels and enhance supply chain efficiency.

Lastly, adopting a customer-centric approach is essential. By using AI to analyze customer data and preferences, brands can ensure that they have the right products in stock to meet customer demand. This customer-centric approach not only improves inventory management but also enhances customer satisfaction.

By implementing these strategies, brands can ensure success in using AI for inventory management, gaining a competitive edge, and driving business growth.

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Larry Leung
Larry Leung

Larry Leung is a customer experience strategist based in Toronto, Canada. He is a Principal and Chief Experience Officer at Transformidy, a consulting agency focusing on helping brands with their customer experience strategy. He has over 20 years experience working with brands like IBM, TD Bank Group, Manulife, CIBC, Cineplex, McCain, GTAA and more.

He also has a Canadian Leadership role at the Customer Experience Professional Association (CXPA). He is a frequent contributor to local and international publications and a speaker at various conferences.

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