Guest Column | December 17, 2020

How To Step Up Inventory Management With Beacons

By Kate Prohorchik, Iflexion

Gears workflow process management

Here is how retail companies can apply beacons to streamline and automate inventory management tasks.

The use of beacons in retail is not new. As the hype over the iBeacon technology release in 2013 subsided and initial implementation hiccups were overcome, both big and small retailers started relying on iBeacon app development to boost customer experience with proximity-based promotions, location-tailored engagements, and facilitated in-store navigation.

In contrast to customer-oriented applications, the use of beacons for back-office retail operations is not nearly as extensive. In the meantime, the BLE technology harbors a high potential to streamline cumbersome internal workflows while also enhancing their accuracy and efficiency. Of all the processes keeping the retail trade functional and thriving, inventory management appears most in need of beacon-driven innovation.

At all times, inventory management has been the key to operational efficiency, smarter business decisions, and satisfied customers, but during the pandemic, the process came to be vital for business continuity, too. However, many brands have discovered that their current inventory solutions alone are not enough to deliver the level of stock visibility and operations control required amid the volatile customer demand and disrupted supply. This is where beacons emerge as the enabler of inventory management automation and refinement for e-commerce and traditional retail.

Let’s now explore how the introduction of beacons can take inventory management processes up a notch.

Enable Passive Inventory Tracking

Inventory tracking, or monitoring the goods in possession, their quantities, and location, is essential for timely order fulfillment and a well-functioning supply chain. But despite the importance of the process, companies at large prefer to do it in an old-fashioned way, with personnel scanning incoming goods and inputting the data into spreadsheets. Needless to say that such inventory tracking proves not only time-consuming and costly but also error-prone, frequently leading to overstocks or supply shortages.

With the help of beacons, businesses can set up a passive inventory tracking system. Small Bluetooth-enabled tags, fastened to incoming boxes and pallets, are automatically registered by beacons positioned around the warehouse and transmitting the data to a unified inventory tracking platform.

The devices can track inventory movements and status in real-time, enabling employees to have full visibility over the stock levels and location and swiftly fulfill orders. The infrastructure also can alert the personnel when a piece of inventory was not moved for a while and prevent the misplaced items from aging and spoiling.

Uflex, a leading Indian packaging enterprise, is the prime example of beacon-enabled inventory tracking done right. Having deployed BLE devices around the warehouse facilities, the company fully automated stock-taking and item locating and managed to reduce the inventory management efforts by almost 80% and the volume of customer complaints by 40%.

Improve Warehouse Space Utilization

Optimal storage space management is one of the major challenges for brick-and-mortar and online retailers alike. Under-utilized storage is a waste of money amidst the recent revitalization of the logistics real estate market, while a crammed warehouse causes congestion and raises the risks of product damage and workplace accidents. What is more, since storage space calculations are mostly approximate, personnel are often unaware of unused zones in the deepest recesses of the warehouse and stock the goods where it’s most convenient.

With beacons fitted around a storage facility, the warehouse employees can have actual information about the available shelf space and easily find the suitable storage slots to put the received items.

What is more, BLE-enabled devices can gather granular insights on storage space utilization and warehouse operations, including the length of items receiving, picking, and sorting, employees’ movements, etc. Analyzing this raw data with business intelligence solutions, business owners can easily pinpoint space utilization inefficiencies and process bottlenecks and take informed actions to revamp the warehouse layout and zoning. There is also a wealth of techniques for optimizing storage space, from taking advantage of vertical space to building mezzanines, and with hard data on warehouse functioning on hand, retailers can easily gauge what arrangement will work out best for them.

Streamline Equipment Use

Apart from the smart use of storage space, the efficiency of everyday inventory operations greatly depends on making the most of the assets at hand. Regretfully, as retail turnover grows and the number of storage facilities expands, it’s not uncommon for inventory managers to lose sight of their warehouse equipment, struggling to locate it literally and figuratively around the large, obscured places and keep track of its performance and maintenance status.

An infrastructure of BLE devices can prove useful for tracking warehouse equipment the same way as with inventory. Equipping forklifts, scales, pallet jacks, and carts with Bluetooth tags, inventory managers can then easily identify each tool’s location and working conditions, see whether it is in use at the moment, and smartly redistribute it around the facility to meet specific operational needs.

Drawing on the gathered data, one also can detect poor asset utilization practices, excessive idle time, performance lags, or lack of maintenance, and introduce appropriate changes to equipment handling workflows to maximize its productivity.

Automate Storage Conditions Control

Of many retail challenges posed by the dramatic supply and demand fluctuations in 2020, maintaining inventory storage conditions ranked relatively high. While in spring the online grocery, beauty, and pharmaceutical retailers were snowed under orders and struggled to properly store and deliver the vast number of perishable products, brick-and-mortar retail had difficulties with preserving at least some of the unsold goods. In summer, the situation became less critical, but with the second wave of COVID-19 intensifying, retailers are seeking solutions to help them sustain controlled storage conditions in the face of explosive demand and supply chain interruptions alike.

Wireless beacons with integrated temperature, pressure, or humidity sensors can prove a valuable aid in inventory monitoring. The devices can be placed around the cold storage or even attached to the goods package and transmit live conditions data to a single warehouse management platform. If any condition indicators are nearing unacceptable levels, the devices can automatically alert the staff, allowing them to take timely measures and prevent spoilage.

This way, an infrastructure of beacons can not only help reduce product waste but also free up workers’ time, previously spent on manual condition supervision, for more demanding tasks.