Tracking On-Shelf Availability using Sales Force Automation

September 20, 2022

Importance of shelf presence of your products in retail outlets doesn’t need much explanation, at least for fast moving consumer goods. Those which are visible to customers will get sold, as simple as that. As a brand owner, answers to some pertinent questions must be available with you always and real-time. For example, do you have enough real estate? Is someone else occupying your property? Is the space prominent enough to grab customer attention? Are you getting the share of shelf you deserve? And many more...

And you can track all these provided you have enabled your sales team / merchandisers with a cutting-edge SFA solution which has a mobile app with flexible workflow to capture any information that is required and a powerful BI engine at the back-end to process so much of information and throw you the metrics that you want to monitor. Before we get into details of how do you do that, lets ponder over what parameters should be tracked.

Well, there is no universal list and there can’t be. It’s bound to vary depending on the industry, overall market position and many other factors. However, based on our experience of providing these insights to numerous clients over last few years, we have identified top three of them.

Share-of-Shelf: Tracking shelf share of your key brands against the competition is probably the most obvious of all. Many FMCG companies set a benchmark that share-of-shelf of any brand must be higher than the market share published by the leading market research companies. Alarm bell must be ringing if there is any declining trend in a particular region, state or channel.

Prominence: Are your key brands present in the most ‘happening’ aisles of the store? Are they stacked at the eye level of the customer or at the ‘Hot Zone’ as many companies call it? There is good chance that your product is not even noticed by the customer if he has to move his neck significantly upwards or downwards.

Positional Proximity: Or many would love to call it as ‘Togetherness’. You would for sure want to place different SKUs of the same brand as close to each other as possible. If a customer has reached the shelf where 2 KG Surf Excel FrontMatic packs are available while searching for the 1 KG pack, he would expect it to be available in the same shelf. There is no reason why he will put extra effort to find out where the 1 KG packs are available.

So, how an SFA can help you to track all these parameters? There are different practices followed by different companies depending on data volume, expected accuracy level, lag time they can afford etc. Let’s discuss top three of them along with their pros and cons.

Manual data entry through app: If the mobile app workflow of your SFA solution is flexible enough, the merchandisers can input the count of facings of your own brand as well as off your competition at the most granular level. They can also report prominence, proximity etc. for your key brands. All these data can then be rolled up to generate a dashboard where you can check all the parameters relevant for you. While this method will ensure that you get a quick and real-time visibility of your ‘shelf health’, you have no control on the accuracy of the data and completely reliant on the precision and good faith of your field team. We have seen many leading FMCG companies following this method. However, if KPIs of the team (or of the people managing the team) is linked to these parameters, you really cannot use this approach.

Backend Audit Team: In this approach, the merchandisers only capture images of the shelves or aisles and submit the same using SFA app. The backend solution of the SFA should have a provision to show the actual images (with zooming functionality etc.) and then digitize the information as per the parameters you want to track. All you now need is a backend audit team who will go through the images, count the facings and other parameters and enter the details. In this method, you will get very high accuracy, but there will be always a lag of at least 3-4 days before you get to see the data you want. Also, there is additional cost involved for the manual audit process. Typically if your operation is limited to 20,000 stores, you can go for this approach. Some of the major liquor companies are using this technique for few years now.

Image Recognition: With the advancement of technology, image recognition is now a reality – although not widely adopted. There are few independent players in this field who provide image recognition APIs to be used by the SFA solutions. If your SFA solution is integrated with one such API, you can simply use the SFA app to capture the shelf images and let the image recognition technology fetch the parameters you want to track. These APIs are capable of returning count of packs and their coordinates (to develop the logic which will determine prominence and proximity). While this is a great use of artificial intelligence with quick turn-around time, there are few other things to consider. The biggest question is the accuracy level. While many claims to have achieved 90-95% accuracy, it comes with many disclaimers such as packs must of rectangular in shape, there should be enough light and so on. In the actual retail scenario, many of these conditions may not be met and that is why there has not been a great adoption of Image Recognition especially in India. Having said that, we believe the speed at which technology is advancing daily, very soon these constrains will be taken care of and image recognition will become the preferred approach to track your ‘shelf parameters’.