Agile retail businesses are shifting the supply chain to support a major strategic and operational focus on new inventories. The traditional approach of producing an inventory which is then sold, as much as is possible, is being transformed into an approach where a partly, or fully, virtual inventory is showcased as much as possible, and then produced to order.

The enablers of the new processes are built around delaying final commitments to designs, styles, materials, colours and sizes until the latest possible moment.

Bespoke inventories use local suppliers and fast response times to refresh and replenish the assortment in shops with the most up-to-date sales data and analysis. Virtual inventories respond to individual requests and orders from the customer, whilst the advent of instant inventories will potentially put the production of the product directly into the hands of the customer.

The two ‘kill-joys’ of buying & merchandising are the ‘inspiration lag’ and the ‘accuracy drag.’ These suppress sales and margin.

The “inspiration lag” is the delay between the original product inspiration and the time the product hits the market. With every weeks delay the product becomes a paler shade of the original inspiration. Alongside this the internal retailer passion for the product is lost, as excitement gives way to exasperation and frustration as the development of drawings and re-detailing swamps the process.

The “accuracy drag” is the time it takes to produce and ship the products. Inappropriate supplier skills and communications again slow the process and introduce inaccuracies and mistakes into the product.

Advanced retailers pre-determine style grouping in whatever formal or informal way is correct for their brand. Best practice retailers can then use technology to understand and respond to how customers are grouping products, by what taste attributes the customer is prioritizing.

Spontaneous customer journeys can also be created in real time both in shops and online by responding to customer style likes and dislikes, either verbally communicated or analysing product responses.

The sales assistant can then guide customers across predetermined style boundaries directly to individual style products, whilst online hierarchies and layouts can respond to individual style decisions.

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