Why let your products languish on the shelf?

A just-in-time inventory strategy will spur customers to buy now before they lose out, says Leslie Kossoff.

Efficient stock management is essential - image: iStockphoto
Efficient stock management is essential - image: iStockphoto

In the best of all possible worlds, you'd be taking a deep breath and relaxing after a really excellent Christmas season. While I hope the last part of that statement is true, what you can't do is the former, at least not the relaxing part - because this year is going to be a year of change.

VAT is up and your customers are only now going to start figuring out how it's impacting them. Buying decisions are therefore going to be far better and carefully thought out than any impulses they had before.

This means that you have to be on top of your game to keep your costs down and the value you provide your customers high - as perceived by them.

And that means changing how you handle your inventory, both in-store and online.

The Zara strategy

Start by thinking of yourself as the garden equivalent of Zara, the high-street fashion retailer that differentiates itself as much, if not more, by inventory movement as it does by style and price.

At Zara, just-in-time inventory is the strategy. On an approximately two-week turnaround basis, clothes come in, are sold and are not replaced. The moment the boxes hit the receiving area, the items are put out on the racks. Everyone, from senior management to floor personnel, works the inventory, because the sooner the inventory is out there, the sooner it is sold.

The retailer keeps its price points moderate so that its customers can afford something - if not always everything - they like. But, more than anything, its customers know that they need to keep coming back to see what's new and check out what's next. If they don't come back, they will miss these new items - because of the just-in-time strategy, they know they have to keep up.

Granted, the Zara strategy does not translate to all aspects of your centres, but it raises a very important set of questions, such as:

- How long does your inventory - in all areas - sit on the shelves?

- What is the cost of that inventory's inertia?

- Which of the products that you sell do not need the lead time you are giving them to be delivered, stored and shelf-bound in your centre? In effect, what could move more quickly than is currently the case?

- To what extent do you create a sense of excitement and possibility surrounding the upcoming products or services that you offer?

- How willing are your suppliers to provide you with just-in-time delivery systems?

- If they are unwilling, what other suppliers might help you?

The Zara strategy takes planning and courage. You need to start by identifying those areas in which you can create the quick-turnaround sense of excitement - and the sense of potential loss if they miss what you have to offer - to your customers.

The better you are at this strategy, the better you target your customers with what they want - and then carry only what will sell quickly and profitably.

Online expansion

According to Stephen Robertson, the director-general of the British Retail Consortium, online sales have increased by 13 per cent in the past year. This is very good news. What is not good news is that, as an industry, garden centres have not been making best use of online as an option - whether in building customer loyalty (and associated buying information) or as a full-service offering.

Now you're going to say: "But we don't have the resources or infrastructure of an Amazon," or "People who buy at garden centres want the in-store experience. They want to get out in the air to see and be surrounded by all of their gardening options."

And I am going to say yo're correct, but not in absolutely every aspect of what you have to offer.

You're not trying to replace your centre with an online shop. What you're trying to do is augment your offering, in terms of products and services, by increasing and improving what you provide online.

Is it additional information and resources? Memberships that give access to experts who wouldn't otherwise be available? Do you sell certain products online that you don't have in-store?

Are you offering special prices of products on your website that your sales staff can tell your customers about? How about a kiosk or computer from which they can order products in-store? Have you built a social networking strategy? One that keeps your customers engaged between visits?

People want relationships. By devising an integrated in-house and online supplier/product/inventory strategy that consistently demonstrates to your customers that you care about what they want, that you are interested and will respond accordingly, you create the relationship they are seeking.

Don't miss out. You have what they want so make sure that they know it. Because they will come - in person and online.

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