Why some retailers use — and avoid over-using — stores as fulfillment locations

Retailers are learning how to adapt to changing consumer shopping behavior. Retailers must know what inventory to have in store, what to offer online, and how to get it to customers. Shoppers expect to pick up online orders in store or have them shipped to their homes. Home Depot is using home-grown software to lessen its reliance on stores doubling as fulfillment centers. Big and tall men’s apparel retailer Destination Group XL reduced the number of brands it sells to make inventory more manageable. Meanwhile, Tractor Supply Co. limits which stores can fulfill orders — but the 95 stores that do fulfill can ship orders to customers within a day. Retailers need to invest in fast and reliable delivery or risk losing the sale.

Real-time inventory availability is important. It ensures retailers have a current view of what is available when and where, says Emily Pfeiffer, principal analyst at consulting company Forrester.

About a third of U.S. consumers said if they can’t find availability in the store near them by checking the retailer’s website, they’re less likely to go to the store, according to Forrester’s December 2022 Consumer Energy Index and Retail Pulse Survey of 483 U.S. adults who shopped online during the winter holidays, conducted Dec. 26-30, 2022.

They’re not always shopping online, Pfeiffer says.

“They just want to look and make sure the thing they want is available in the store near them,” she says. “Inventory [visibility] is terribly important. Retailers don’t always know what they have and where it is.”

Consumers want to check online for product availability at a nearby store — 68%, according to a Digital Commerce 360 and Bizrate Insights omnichannel survey of 1,069 shoppers in February 2023. Half (50%) ordered online and picked up a product in store. And if something wasn’t available at one store location, 23% checked online for inventory

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