For local retailers, are empty shelves a thing of the past?
Justine Griffin/Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Shoppers don’t have to be the first in line anymore to guarantee going home with the hottest gift for the holidays this year.
With brick-and-mortar retailers shifting the way inventories are stocked and shipped to be more competitive with the likes of Amazon and eBay, empty shelves and limited quantities may be a thing of the past in Southwest Florida and beyond.
After cutting their losses during the worst Christmas seasons of the Great Recession — take 2009, for example, when many traditional stores offered steep discounts come January to rid inventories of unsold merchandise — most chain stores have buckled down on holiday offerings.
Many have also rewritten their delivery playbooks.
This year, more retailers than ever began offering home shipment services in an attempt to get customers to buy items in the store, even amid low inventories.
“Best Buy has it down to a science when it comes to warehouse stock levels,” said Paul Batista, home sales manager at the store on Tamiami Trail in Sarasota, the company’s largest in the region.
The electronics chain offers new services to online and in-store customers this year that go beyond the typical price-matching. Shoppers who order online from BestBuy.com can pick up their purchases from the nearest store within 45 minutes, Batista said.
Best Buy also offers home shipments and online order services to shoppers in stores if a product is not on the shelves.
“We’re adding to our inventory constantly, almost every day, so nothing is ever out of stock,” Batista said. “But as we get closer to Christmas, customers aren’t waiting until the weekends to shop anymore. “We’re seeing more people come in earlier in the week.”
Other local retail players are confident that their planning will feed consumers’ demand without leaving them in need of post-Christmas doorbusters.
“We did not overload on sweaters or ski jackets this year, but will be offering last-minute promotions just before Christmas,” said Bill Webster, a spokesman for Bealls, the Bradenton-based retailer.
Most retailers expanded inventories by just 1 percent this year on average and increased variety on the shelves by only 1.2 percent, despite the 3 percent sales growth most analysts have been predicting by year’s end, according to a study by BDO Seidman LLP, an accounting and consulting organization.
Retailing executives remain skeptical that stock-keeping units — the primary measure of inventory in the retail trade — will increase, with 46 percent of those surveyed saying levels will stay consistent with what consumers saw in 2011, the BDO data show.
“Retailers are very focused on inventory, especially after the years like 2009 and 2010. The last thing they want is to be stuck with a lot of merchandise at the end of the year and have to dump it at next-to-nothing prices,” said Jeff Green, a retail analyst with Phoenix-based Jeff Green Partners. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw deeper discounts leading up to Christmas comparable to what we saw around Black Friday.”
But with a growing surge of consumers ordering gifts online this year, where competitors can offer the convenience of free shipping and same-day delivery, brick-and-mortar retailers have had to shift the way inventories are stocked yet again.
About 55 percent of American consumers said they will use online retail stores for their shopping this year. Forty-six percent said they would visit a store to buy, according to Soasta, an online and mobile testing agency.
The results were seen on Cyber Monday, which was the biggest online shopping day of the year. More than 129 million people were looking on the web for deals.
For the first time this year, Wal-Mart offered doorbuster price guarantees to Black Friday shoppers who managed to get in line an hour before promotions began.
Even if supplies ran out that night, those who had lined up were able to buy an iPad 2, an LG Blu-ray player or an Emerson 32-inch flat-screen HDTV for the same marked-down price and pick it up before Christmas.
“We know the frustration of being there early on Black Friday and items quickly going out of stock,” said spokeswoman Veronica Marshall.
Like Best Buy, Wal-Mart ran a same-day delivery program in certain markets, and offered the buy-online, ship-to-store services, too.
Despite the strong holiday sales from 2011 — where consumers spent $562 billion, the most since 1999 — retailers have poured more resources into managing inventory levels than ever before, said John Fleming, spokesman for the Florida Retail Federation.
“Online retailers are able to be more flexible and responsive to shifting prices, based on demand, where brick-and-mortar store can’t do that,” Fleming said.
“But now that brick-and-mortar stores are also chasing sales online by redirecting the supply chain,” he said.
“It is easier to manage inventories.”