Retailers and grocers have been some of the first businesses to be affected by the recent outbreak of COVID-19, as stores across the globe sell out of stock due to sudden surges in product demand.

The virus, which continues to spread rapidly, is putting a huge strain on retailers as customers prepare for the worst, flocking to supermarkets to stockpile on supplies. Of the many regions affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia has seen the demand for everyday products skyrocket as fears grew over the spread of the virus and the likelihood of disruption to normal life due to self-isolation. Over the past few weeks, items such as toilet paper, facemasks, soap, tinned food, disinfectant and food staples have been flying off the shelves as customers bulk-buy goods, leaving retailers scrambling to replenish their supply in time for the next wave of panicked customers.

Real-time inventory insight

Without a strong grasp of where goods are located in retail stores and supply chains, as well as where products are originally being sourced from, it is incredibly challenging for retailers in Australia to take control and maintain stability in their businesses.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder of just how important it is for retailers to have real-time insights into their product inventory, as well as stock suppliers, so that they can stay fully informed and react quickly to sudden market changes.

Real-time transparency of the entire supply chain helps retailers to determine whether their product inventory is full enough to deal with spikes in demand, such as what is being experienced with COVID-19, and whether the products being supplied are coming from sources located in countries that are or could be impacted by COVID-19 restrictions.

If suppliers are impacted and business as usual isn’t possible – due to reductions in their workforce and shutdowns affecting productivity – the flow on effect could be delays, halts or backlogs in both production and shipping of ordered goods.

Maintaining business stability

To maintain business stability at all times, retailers need a real-time view of product inventory and stock availability, at any point in the supply chain, including warehouse, transport, online shopping and in store. They also need a detailed list of all stock suppliers, which is always accessible and accurate.

A centralised real-time viewpoint of what stock is in the supply chain and where it is located helps retailers to identify whether there is a need to order in more. This information also helps retailers to make assessments ahead of time around whether there is a risk that some of their usual stock sources and suppliers will have less of a capacity to deliver them product. If this is the case, retailers are then able to develop contingency plans like investigating what other suppliers are available for them to turn to as an alternative.

Having just one single source of truth when it comes to inventory and stock suppliers available at any time and from any location, can help prepare retailers for challenging times. It means retailers can stay on the front foot and be ready for sudden increases in demand or last-minute changes in suppliers.

Agile inventory fulfilment

The current demands on supply chain operations during the COVID-19 pandemic is requiring retailers and grocers to quickly shift and reset their supply chains to be more reactive. For some businesses their supply chains are under much more pressure than ever before, even when compared to peak periods such as Black Friday and other sales events.

Retailers are having to quickly get a grasp of their stock levels, stock turnover and short-term stock fulfilment needs, plus focus on heightened communication with suppliers, so they can quickly establish and execute an inventory strategy for this unprecedented situation.

Inventory management is very difficult to get right when there are so many moving parts, and the current environment retailers are facing with COVID-19 has raised the stakes even more. Retailers always need full visibility of stock and suppliers to help them take charge during uncertain times and give them full control of their business. This business agility allows them not only to keep up with current spikes in demand, but to sustain their profit margin and business stability into the future once things return to normal.

Raghav Sibal is Managing Director for ANZ at Manhattan Associates