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Walmart Gives Vendors Access to Backroom Inventory Data

April 15, 2013

For Walmart suppliers hoping for quicker access to backroom inventory data as they walk the aisles, there's now an app for that.

The SPARC (Supplier Portal Allowing Retail Coverage) app was unveiled last month at its annual gathering of suppliers in Orlando known as the Year Beginning Meeting, according to the newmarketbuilders blog.

Suppliers who receive appropriate training will be able to use their smartphones to perform many of the functions that currently require assistance from a store associate armed with a bulky Telxon tracking device, according to retailtoday.com. With the likelihood of dozens of suppliers in a store on a given day, finding an associate with a Telxon can be a frustrating process.

"Suppliers often visit our stores to check on their products," Walmart spokesperson Ashley Hardie, told Arkansas' The City Wire. "Allowing them access to on-the-spot information through the app on their smartphone increases efficiency and allows for real-time decisions — and in retail, speed is important."

The program will be rolling out this summer. Beyond real-time access to data, suppliers and third-party merchandising firms will be trained to use the devices to handle basic practices such as printing missing shelf labels for items, stocking their products, and ensuring their displays are correct.

The program, developed by Walmart's digital partner Rockfish, was piloted in 28 stores in four markets over the last several months with several major suppliers including L'Oreal, Procter & Gamble, General Mills, Kellogg, Unilever and ConAgra.

Some see the app as a potential labor saving device for Walmart. Staffing issues are said to be behind reported replenishment issues at Walmart. The retailer has disputed the reports, first published by Bloomberg News.

Proactive suppliers stand to benefit from SPARC.

Speaking to The City Wire, Jami Dennis, a retail consultant who teaches classes on retail replenishment, said many smaller suppliers underestimate the follow-through work required at the store level that follows an initial order. Smaller vendors also face bigger challenges contacting a replenishment manager.

"Improving replenishment standards is manageable, but suppliers need to be engaged every step of the way," Ms. Dennis said.


Discussion Questions:

What do you think of Walmart's SPARC app? How effective will it be in improving the in-store replenishment process? What are the benefits as well as the hurdles involved in getting suppliers more involved in the in-store replenishment process in such a way?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

How effective do you suspect a supplier app such as SPARC will be in improving the in-store replenishment process?


SPARC looks like an extension of the collaborative planning and replenishment programs already in place between Walmart and its suppliers. If vendors have access to point of sale and other data, this makes perfect sense—especially as Walmart leverages its growing use of RFID technology. And, as the article points out, Walmart needs to take more cost-efficient steps in a hurry to solve its well-documented "empty shelves" problem.

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Dick Seesel, Principal, Retailing In Focus LLC

Any application that improves in-store replenishment is welcome. It's frustrating to consumers and costly to manufacturers when items are out of stock or not replenished. Walmart is always looking for ways to cut their costs. Hopefully SPARC will keep their shelves fully stocked, as well as save them money.

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Max Goldberg, President, Max Goldberg & Associates

Glad it will help "proactive" suppliers. Hope it proves equally effective for active ones.

On a more serious, less grammatical note, obviously any tool is only as good as its usage. How many use it and how effectively they employ it will determine whether or not the SPARC app survives.

If used well it could significantly help. Are there potential problems? Clearly—so policing the system is critical to its success.

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Ryan Mathews, Founder, ceo, Black Monk Consulting

SPARC will be an invaluable tool to help build deeper connection between Walmart and their suppliers. The ability to access inventory data in real time will permit the merchandising team of suppliers to make faster, more accurate decisions without demanding resources from store operations associates.

The hurdles with SPARC, as with all technology initiatives, is training supplier staff to effectively use those tools to help with decision-making.

The net effort for Walmart will be to offload some work previously done by store associates on suppliers, continuing a long-term trend. But the benefit to suppliers of real-time information in-store, more than supplants the excess work.

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Mark Price, Managing Partner, LiftPoint Consulting, Inc.

Walmart shoppers can only hope this will aid the shelf restocking. If there is a weakness in the Walmart system, it is the often empty or low stocked shelves.

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Ed Rosenbaum, CEO, The Customer Service Rainmaker, Rainmaker Solutions

Being able to access real-time data on what is in the back room while checking shelves is certainly a smart idea. Out-of-stock issues cannot be resolved unless it is possible to identify where the inventory is. However, implementing this approach to solve the problem of having only person per store with the machine that can currently access data is a solution to an internal Walmart problem of their own employees not having enough information to keep the shelves stocked.

The article goes on to say that the manufacturer's reps will be responsible for fixing errors with shelf tags and promotions. I am sure they will be keeping track of the mistakes and let Walmart know what tasks are not being performed. In addition, the manufacturer's reps will be responsible for restocking shelves if merchandise is in the back room. I am sure that information will also be made known to Walmart if it becomes a common situation. However, I am sure the manufacturer's reps will be pleased to be able to do something about getting their product back on the shelf. Does this create a problem for Walmart, managing their back room with all trained manufacturer reps being able to walk in and stake inventory out to the floor?

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Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D., President, Global Collaborations, Inc.

Yeah, I'm afraid I'm a cynic on this one—not about suppliers' use of it, or whether it is a good idea to give suppliers access to this information. Transparency is a plus, especially when it comes to inventory. No, where I'm cynical is in the whole "no, we're not staffing less" part. The easiest way to reduce your labor is to get your suppliers to do it for you....

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Nikki Baird, Managing Partner, RSR Research

The more that any retailer drives towards inventory performance improvements, the better. Last week I attended the Global Retail Conference in Tucson at the Lundgren Retail Center, University of Arizona. The many retail CEOs that spoke talked about how they are changing the way that they deal with inventory challenges and SPARC is another way to assure that the products are in place when the shoppers want them.

Good work, Walmart—which also had a speaker at the conference.

Tom...do not miss GRC 2014!....

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Tom Redd, Global Vice President, Strategic Communications, SAP Global Retail Business Unit

SPARC is the latest example of Walmart harnessing its scale and the massive supplier base that crawls its stores on a daily basis. Walmart realizes a secondary benefit by literally placing the resolution of stock-out issues in the hands of its suppliers. Boot up or shut up!

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Carol Spieckerman, President, Spieckerman Retail

This is the app all DSD vendors and suppliers were looking for—visibility to the last mile at the point of decision making. By passing a lot of the onus onto the suppliers for maintaining the missing shelf labels and availability, Walmart is definitely stepping forward in bringing operational efficiencies.

For suppliers, it is better visibility of demand and they know what they need to push in which stores. However, leveraging this data to make day to day decisions might be difficult for the vendors without sufficient tools and levers in place.

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Shilpa Rao, Practice Head - Merchandising, Tata Consultancy Services

This is a great idea. I think Walmart finally figured out that they can increase sales more by keeping inventory on the shelves than by doing any other single thing. I used to shop Walmart weekly but gave up because typically half of the things I wanted would be OOS. Walmart doesn't have to worry about getting suppliers involved. Just give the suppliers the opportunity to get their inventory to the shelves and the problem will be reduced by 95%.

Ed Dennis, Sales, Dennis Enterprises

As often happens when Walmart threatens to innovate, we generate a lot of interpretation based on just a few early facts.

Despite that caveat, I'm quite interested in what the company is attempting with SPARC. The bring-your-own-device methodology has potential to put store-specific inventory data in the hands of many more supplier associates who can make corrections in the field.

This is a core element of In-Store Implementation that has eluded most retailers. Potential confounds include the accuracy of shelf-level inventory and space data itself and the challenge for DSD and MSO organizations to integrate the new app with field systems (work force and order management) already in place.

For my money, if SPARC is all about store merchandisers receiving marching orders through a quick-response app, I think its value will be only incremental. If it also enables capture of in-store conditions and performance data, it has game-changing potential.

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James Tenser, Principal, VSN Strategies

It is important to be aware that stores, not just Walmarts, are neighborhood warehouses. Retailers are merchant warehouseman who collect revenues from the people who want them to hold merchandise for them, waiting for a stock-picker, the shopper, to "come and get it!" This warehouse function is crucial in understanding more than just stock-outs.

The single biggest cause of out-of-stocks (OOS) is inadequate warehouse space allotted to the top selling items, those few that shoppers are most interested in. Instead of rationally allocating adequate space to those few items, vast amounts of shelf space are wasted by overallocation to items of little interest. Both retailers and their suppliers are complicit in this waste. But its fundamental driver is the retailers' seeking, not maximum shopper satisfaction, but maximum revenue from their suppliers.

The key here is not elimination of SKUs (SKU "irrationalization") but matching shelf space, not just facings, but the back of the shelf, too. Why not take existing gondola space and put in gondolas with one side really deep and facing the other aisle quite shallow—not deep. High volume items on one side of the gondola, low on the other. Of course, in four foot shelf lengths these could alternate down the aisle, allowing a lot more back of shelf "warehouse" space for heavy sellers, and the shallow shelves for slower movers would then have deeper shelves facing the next aisle over. But fast and slow could be mixed along the same side of an aisle by mixing the orientation of these asymmetrically deep shelves.

That's just a suggestion for making possible more rational shelf management. But there is a lot of commentary on Walmart's sloughing off more of the day-to-day shelf management to the suppliers. And why not? Suppliers are obviously more interested in moving their 10 to 100 items in one of 200+ categories, than Walmart (or any other retailer in the FMCG—FAST moving consumer goods—CPG space) can afford to be. There is a reason that DSD is the BEST model for really fast moving consumer goods. What Walmart is doing here is not a large scale shift of the store to a DSD model, but allowing suppliers to begin to reap some of the DSD benefits, even in categories that may not be that fast.

And that's all I have to say about that—right now! ;-)

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Herb Sorensen, Ph.D., Scientific Advisor Kantar Retail; Adjunct Ehrenberg-Bass, Shopper Scientist LLC

The title of this article had me excited, thinking that the information being shared with vendors was going to shed light on the much discussed "black hole" of Nielsen data that is held captive by Walmart.

The SPARC app will surely be helpful for vendors and add efficiency to the supply chain process (isn't what Walmart is still about at its core?), but I am waiting for the day when Walmart shares purchase transaction data with vendors to drive marketing that is customer-centric.

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Bill Hanifin, CEO, Hanifin Loyalty LLC

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