Supply Chain Visibility – Looping in the Retail Customer

by Mike Brown VP, Business Development

July 5, 2021


Supply Chain disruptions have affected the customer experience a great deal over the past 18 months. The customers evolving expectations range from wanting (demanding) same day pick up or delivery – to accepting the reality of waiting many months for a big-ticket purchase to arrive.  Consumers have also had to adjust their perception of retail shelf level in stock availability, as empty pegs or shelves in retail stores have become much more common. It could be said that customers may accept these situations if they are provided more clarity, understanding and knowledge. In addition to that, customers may be more forgiving of a specific retailer if they know that the supply challenges are industry-wide in scope.

Recently, I had an experience with a large hardware retailer that appears to not have adapted well to connecting its customers and associates to inventory availability. I had researched a cordless leaf blower online and determined the specific item I wanted and which retailers carried it. The next day I went into one of the retail locations but could not find the SKU on the shelf, so I made my way to the customer service desk to ask for help. Two associates worked together to research information on their computers. There were no units available in any store within reasonable driving distance but there were 43 units in the distribution centre if I wanted one. I asked if I could have one sent to my home. Yes, but there would be a $70 delivery fee. That seemed steep, so I asked if I could pick it up at a store close to my home. Yes. Next, I asked if they could order it for me? No, I was told I would need to order it online. I did place the order early the next morning and got confirmation. Three days later I received another notification that “the order has been delayed” and then 2 hours after that another notice that “the order has been cancelled. Reason: out of stock”. If this story sounds familiar, it’s probably because it’s not at all uncommon.

Ideally, the in-stock availability status of any SKU should be available in real-time to all retail associates, the supplier, and the customer. This status should include insights on “why” any potential delays are occurring and “when” the product will be available again.

Some challenges to achieving the ideal scenario:

  • Front line workers in retail stores are critical to the communication loop
    • High ratio of part-time vs full-time associates
    • High staff turnover rates, ongoing recruiting, and training
    • Access to online viewing of the retailer’s internal or external website; availability of mobile devices
  • Corporate communication platforms that are inconsistent in clarity, timing, format, and accuracy
  • Misinformation generated by regional or district levels of management adding their interpretation
  • Frequency of status changes based on the volatility of the market or specific product type
  • Culture of end-to-end transparency. The retailers’ level of willingness to share the good/bad/ugly of product availability with its associates and customers.
  • Inaccurate, inconsistent supply details from suppliers
  • The general level of Omni focus, ensuring the online and in-store information is aligned

Some considerations for the retailer: 

  • Review the need for supply chain data education within HQ and the field
  • Do a deep dive into current corporate communication from HQ to the field and vice versa for full transparency and continuous improvement. Test any assumptions at both ends to assess accuracy and consistency.
  • Ensure that any revised communication plan considers the learning from pandemic experience
  • Take an active approach to improve vendor collaboration and communication with an application and process such as what is offered at Krunchbox.
  • Audit the Omni messaging online and in-store to identify gaps that can have an adverse effect on the credibility.


Although some retailers have not taken the opportunity to adapt and improve their processes, others certainly have. I would say that Canadian Tire has done a great job with its website and store-level view of units available. The curbside pickup experience has improved immensely since the early days of the pandemic. It’s the experience that keeps customers coming back!