Major supply chain disruptions around the globe that began with the pandemic are still affecting our economy. They are considered to be, at the same time, the cause and consequence of some of the urgent challenges we are facing today, such as high inflation, product shortages, and rising energy bills. According to the Consumers Brand Association of the United States, the rate of product unavailability has tripled in that country, jumping from 5% to an alarming 15% in the last three years. In this context of instability and uncertainty, retail companies have been eagerly looking for effective solutions to avoid the threat of empty shelves and meet customer demand.
Wisy, a San Francisco-based startup, is one of the organizations setting the pace in this worldwide struggle for supply chain resilience and product availability. Since 2017, software engineers at Wisy have been developing a series of AI tools to help retailers dramatically improve their ability to manage stock. What they didn’t and couldn’t know back then was that major events like the first great global pandemic in a century and the first war in Europe since the aftermath of the fall of Yugoslavia would give them the opportunity to use their AI-powered abilities to help tackle one of the current biggest concerns of our civilization.
AI and stocked shelves: the Wisy Method
Product availability is much more than a problem of customer satisfaction. Since most of the products that are not displayed on the shelves are thrown away, sustainability is also at stake. From its origins, Wisy’s mission has been to provide supermarkets and other retail businesses with technologies for product data collection that can help them track products and keep their shelves full, allowing for much more effective use of resources and goods. To achieve this, they conducted a series of on-site observations and interviews with employees that basically led them to four key conclusions:
- Manual tracking, inventorying, and verification slowed down processes and favored errors.
- Cloud-based platforms used by retail employees were generally not reliable.
- The negative impact of poor Internet connection in basements and warehouses, although predictable, was not taken into account.
- Workers shortage and high employee turnover caused permanent disruptions.
Once the Wisy developers elaborated on this diagnosis, they set to work on creating a platform that was flexible, reliable, agile, and didn’t need an Internet connection.
Wisy’s AI works with image recognition. By identifying which items need to be restocked and matching this data with inventory, the platform helps stores track what available products need to be displayed at every moment. Whenever there is a shortage of a certain product on a shelf, the AI notifies a previously determined store employee. And in case the AI detects that the product is out of stock or inventory is running low, it notifies another employee so that more of that product can be ordered. Another advantage is that it can solve in just a blink of an eye a question that usually forces employees to take long, time-wasting walks to the warehouse: is this product still in storage, or is it out of stock?
But perhaps the most interesting quality of Wisy’s AI is that it can help retailers anticipate the future. Using all the information collected during the processes described above, Wisy can accurately predict when a certain item will be running out of stock, and therefore help businesses avoid the threat of empty shelves.
Powerful allies for the world ahead
For many reasons, supply chain issues are expected to last for a while. The ongoing effects of the pandemic, the uncertain outcome of the war in eastern Europe, the sanctions on one of the key energy providers of the world, and the difficulties to tackle the challenges of the energy transition, are only just some of them.
In any case, the truth is supply chain issues and the growth of product unavailability are probably not a mere consequence of a particular set of circumstances, but a symptom of the major changes and challenges our civilization is going through right now. Technologies and platforms like the one Wisy has developed hint at the possibility that the traditional association between crisis and opportunity may be more than just an old cliché.
As we slowly, hesitantly, and irreversibly enter into a new world, we are finding intelligent machines are one of our most powerful allies to help us be up to the task of the many challenges ahead.