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The Wall Street Journal reports on how “retailers that have been turning to robots to handle inventory in warehouses are testing whether machines can handle a new task: detecting when store shelves need restocking.”

The story goes on: “Keeping track of inventory and doing it quickly has become one of the most pressing supply-chain concerns for merchants as they try to put into place new strategies for selling and delivering goods under the fast-changing demands of e-commerce.

“Services including rapid home delivery and buy online-pickup in store are pushing retailers to blur the lines between distribution centers and stores—and obscure their view of how many items may be in stock and where the goods are held.

“The complicated blending of inventories in stores and warehouses has some retailers testing the use of shelf-scanning robots that roam store aisles and send restocking data back through their networks.”

Walmart, for example, is testing technologies “that use lasers, radar and cameras to navigate store aisles and record which products are out of stock … the data it gathers can help managers target which areas to restock based on profitability and other factors and provides a more accurate snapshot of store inventory than human workers armed with scanners, according to the companies.”
KC's View:
Here’s an alarming passage from the story: “More than three-quarters of respondents to a survey released this month by supply-chain software maker JDA Software Group Inc. said they aren’t able to track inventory in real time, and 55% don’t have a single view of product levels across distribution channels.”

Any out-of-stock is a potential lost sale, and not knowing what you have and where it is strikes me as an enormous problem that has to be addressed.