The Ebb & Flow of Retail Supply Chain: Is AI The Answer?

The Ebb & Flow of Retail Supply Chain: Is AI The Answer?

This month puts us well past the holiday season, with its tradition of frenzied holiday shopping. For those, the shopping tradition and the weeks after provide an opportunity for bragging rights about the savings I achieved in my holiday bargain hunting starting at Thanksgiving.  At the same time, it marks a good time for electronics retailers to start getting ready for the next big shopping surge.

I think nostalgically of my first experience with holiday shopping after I moved from India to America. A friend and I went to the nearest outlet mall at 4 a.m. on Black Friday and parked in a packed parking lot. There were so many cars that some people parked on the grass. It reminded me of the tradition called the Car Festival in South India.

For Car Festival, people do a procession to honor some very powerful Gods and ritually wash the idol statues in a bath of water, milk, oil, and other things. Next, the statue is dressed in a special costume and made up with a paste made of turmeric. When the idol is consecrated it becomes a god and embodies the power of the divine.  As part of the festival, a car is built out of wood. It is huge, six feet tall. Thousands of people pull the car to the temple. The crush of people, which sometimes turns into a stampede came to me as I looked at the mob crowding this outlet mall.

Now, as someone who knows the business end of the retail space, I find myself thinking about how these shopping festivals impact the back end. Everyone in the retail organization from the crew in the distribution center (DC) to the vice president of retail sales has little control over what hits the DC. Volatility is the nature of the business. That changeability causes supply chain pain.

In the DC, it is common to have a mismatch between the amount of work and the number of workers. The bottom line, though, is that orders need to be fulfilled quickly to satisfy customers. That leaves the DC manager with a number of key questions:

  1. How do we manage this ebb and flow in your order fulfillment volume?
  2. How do we accurately forecast the necessary labor force? How do we move the work force from one department to another?
  3. How do we avoid a knee jerk reaction?
  4. What types of tools are available to accurately forecast to allow for the effective handling of sales spikes without damaging the retailer’s brand equity?

Forecasting accuracy becomes a critical component to success. Fortunately, the newest technologies, such as artificial intelligence, have begun to boost that accuracy in the midst of uncertainty. These tools gather data from a variety of sources and can take into account major global happenings, including natural disasters and weather events.  The far reaching impact of such events is hard for humans to predict. Consider a ten day blizzard in Denver. Ten months later, there was a noticeable uptick in babies born on hospitals there. Could a powerful AI tool have predicted that? I am not sure.

These tools can, though, when combined with good data collection about how warehouse workers spend every minute, can help retailers know more than they have in the past. By analyzing workload data and trends, AI can help DC managers forecast labor requirements and trace labor availability. It can help them figure out whether to hire long term experienced employees, or short term temporary help. With tools like and, DC managers can:

  • Forecast order flow into the DC based on history.
  • Forecast labor requirements accurately.
  • Send out message blasts to the potential workers’ mobile devices about work force needs.
  • Capture a real time rate and spend for such a short term assignment.

Knowledge is a powerful thing, Using the right tools, warehouse managers can make better operational decisions, by balancing worker costs against incoming orders to get products into the hands of customers without compromising on customer satisfaction.

How do you manage the ebb and flow of orders and goods in your warehouse, distribution center and supply chain? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

Originally published at on Feb 28, 2018.

Puga Sankara is the co-founder of Smart Gladiator LLC. Smart Gladiator designs, builds, and delivers market-leading mobile technology for retailers, distributors, and 3PL service providers. SG LoadProof is a patent pending Centralized Enterprise Photo/Video Document System on Cloud for Supply Chain. SG LP is built on the fact that photos & videos are vital docs as important as POs/SOs/Legal Contracts/Fulfillment Orders that reside in ERP/WMS/TMS systems, that serve as compelling, conclusive, unequivocal proof of crucial, critical, vital operations executed in Supply Chain within/across orgs when fulfilling customer orders as well as meeting contractual obligations between orgs as merchandise is transferred between different parties that partake in Supply Chain functions & operations. And these photos/videos data should not be stored in someone’s Smartphone or Email Inbox or in their personal/work Computer, but should be stored in a Centralized Enterprise system, where such data can be pushed into super-fast, stored securely, accessible to all stake holders (CFO/Sales Reps/Customer Support/AR/AP) in an org, as well as facilitates super-fast retrieval/sharing. LP is an Enterprise System of record for Photo/Video docs & is as important as an ERP which is an enterprise system of record for POs, SOs, Legal Contracts between parties etc. that have huge legal ramifications, also as important as a WMS (Warehouse Management System) that hold indispensable shipment & fulfillment data on orders. Like how Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat etc. have evolved into social media platforms/systems that enable individuals to showcase their beauty/pretty clothes/lovely cosmetics/hep coolness etc., LoadProof is an Enterprise system that holds similar photos/videos, but for a different reason, not for show off, but to serve as compelling, conclusive, unequivocal & indisputable system of record and proof that can be presented even in the court of law, when there is a dispute between parties while they execute many facets of the Supply Chain functions & operations. Puga is a supply chain technology professional with more than 25 years of experience in deploying capabilities in the logistics and supply chain domain. His prior roles involved managing complicated mission-critical programs driving revenue numbers, rolling out a multitude of capabilities involving more than a dozen systems, and managing a team of 30 to 50 personnel across multiple disciplines and departments in large corporations such as Hewlett Packard. He has deployed WMS for more than 30 distribution centers in his role as a senior manager with Manhattan Associates. He has also performed process analysis walk-throughs for more than 50 distribution centers for WMS process design and performance analysis review, optimizing processes for better productivity and visibility through the supply chain. Size of these DCs varied from 150,000 to 1.2 million SQFT. Puga Sankara has an MBA from Georgia Tech. He can be reached at [email protected] or visit the company at Also follow him at