In retail, timing is everything. Deliver what consumers want where and when they want it, and you can carve a success path that lasts until consumer preferences change or another company performs your functions better. A lesson learned by retailers like Blockbuster, Circuit City and Sears: Your time in the limelight is limited before someone comes and steals it.
In its heyday, Service Merchandise was a retail force. With 413 stores and $4 billion in revenues at its peak, the company singlehandedly turned the “catalog showroom” shopping experience into one that consumers flocked to for fine jewelry, electronics, toys, and other merchandise.
Hindsight being 20/20, modern-day concerns like high inventory carrying costs, the escalating cost of expansive retail space, and the labor-intensive nature of its decidedly non-DIY showroom should have all been red flags for Service Merchandise. Despite these oversights, the company definitely had a few things nailed when it comes to omnichannel. Let’s look at three areas where Service Merchandise excelled.
Lesson 1: Sales in the Front, Fulfillment in the Back
Service Merchandise stored inventory in the backroom versus in the front of the house and basically understood the value of the omnichannel model as far back as the 1980s.
Stores aren’t meant to be fulfillment centers. Employees don’t know how to pack boxes efficiently. They rely on their own judgment about how much packing material and product to load into a box for a ship-to-home customer. That can get expensive when dimensional minimums come into play. For example: If a box is too large relative to the weight going into the box, the shipper is going to overpay.
Service Merchandise escaped these challenges.
- All inventory was maintained at the store level, in the back of the house, where customers couldn’t touch it until they ordered it, initially using a clipboard and written order and later using the “Silent Sam” ordering system.
- Employees were trained on efficient fulfillment techniques: The goods were either sent by conveyor to the customers or shipped to their homes.
“The average price of an item sold in the store was $30. The average transaction was $55, so we were selling less than two items per transaction,” says Service Merchandise CEO Ray Zimmerman. “Because they were $30 items, it was less expensive for us to handle it on a pick and conveyor basis than it was to stack it out and let the customer pick it up.”
Obstacles emerge when fulfillment creeps into a retailer’s sales floor customer-facing roles:
- Store employees picking orders instead of taking care of customers.
- Aisles congested with big carts and harried fulfillment individuals trying to fill orders quickly.
- Online shipments packed inefficiently by store employees untrained in the fine points of fulfillment.
- Unnecessary touches: product is received, unpacked, put on store shelves, retrieved, repacked and shipped back out.
- Multiple touches create a high volume of dunnage and corrugate waste.
Just think about how far a store employee has to walk to collect all of the items from an online order, versus someone who was working in a warehouse with very high pick densities. Warehouses also incorporate technology (i.e., pick-to-light and voice options) that makes picking and packing more efficient.
Lesson 2: Technology is Integral to Omni-Channel Success.
Retail has come a long way since the 1980s, but it’s clear that Service Merchandise’s leaders had a knack for understanding their customer base and serving it well. They also weren’t afraid to invest in technology long before terms like omnichannel, automation, robotics, and Amazon were common vernacular for retailers.
“We had a great group of IT people – and that was unique for most companies at the time,” Zimmerman says. “At the time, there was no point-of-sale system that had an alpha numeric. They were programming in BASIC language, it was very simple, but that’s how we developed all these systems.”
Those systems monitored inventory, too.
“We had to keep inventory tight and we spent a lot of time monitoring to make sure that stores were making inventory adjustments,” Zimmerman says. “If they didn’t have any adjustments, the store wasn’t doing its job verifying inventory count; if there were too many, the store was having a shrinkage problem.”
If afforded today’s technology advances, omnichannel data management and its innovative mindset, here’s what a profitable “Service Merchandise 2020” might look like.
- An early adopter of warehouse automation, it deploys advanced technologies like robotics.
- Warehouse pickers are equipped with wearable technology that enables them to do their jobs faster in a hands-free environment.
- Integrating automated co-bots, conveyors and cranes into its stockrooms, it effectively leverages technology to shorten fulfillment times and hit two-day and one-day shipping windows.
- Leverage artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to optimally determine placement and levels inventory based on predicted customer demand.
Lesson 3: Give Customers an Experience
Customers like going into stores to look at and touch products.
Service Merchandise knew that its customers really wanted to experience a product before buying it, which meant stores didn’t really need to have all of their inventory visible and stacked to the ceiling when those customers walked in the door.
With its part-catalog/part-showroom approach, Service Merchandise was meeting customers where they were in the ‘80s.
“The catalog was not for people to order from. It was an advertising tool – people could pick what they want and come into the store,” Zimmerman says. “If that customer drove 3 blocks to come into our store, they expected to get it. We had to be in stock every day, on every item.”
Many people still remember fondly a key aspect of the Service Merchandise experience, even if the retailer’s dominant presence has faded.
“When the company liquidated, I bought the name to keep it in the family. I put up a website – it didn’t sell much merchandise, but it got a tremendous amount of comments,” Zimmerman says. “Many wanted to tell me how much they loved watching the merchandise coming down the conveyor belt.”
Putting it all Together
Retailers are still trying to figure out the right recipe for omnichannel success. A multichannel approach to sales focused on providing customers with a seamless shopping experience — be it online, on a desktop, via a mobile device, by telephone, or in a brick-and-mortar store — omnichannel is pushing companies into new terrain when it comes to fulfillment, transportation, and delivery.
To help retailers understand how to improve omnichannel performance, we created “Prime Before Its Time: The Service Merchandise Experience.”
Download the guide to learn how the retail innovations of yesterday can help you deliver a prime performance today.