Breaking a promise to consumers has never been more dangerous, as expectations across numerous metrics become more severe and decisive. Amid this challenge, it is critical that retailers are able to generate a real-time view of what is “available to promise” (ATP) and not just what is “available to sell” (ATS).

The latter ATS model is often conflated and confused with the desired ATP holy grail, and it’s completely understandable why this is the case. In years gone by, confirming what is available to sell in the form of active stock relative to orders, was easy to calculate.

“Is that item available and ready to ship? Yes?… Then we can ‘promise’ that delivery.”

As the proliferation of automated supply chain solutions has become more commonplace, this rather simple calculation has also been the basis for most order management systems (OMS) on the market today. These solutions are able to feed into inventory data to reveal whether items are available. In that moment, it feels safe to then “promise” fulfillment to the consumer.

But this is where the current climate muddies those waters slightly. This misplaced definition of ATP only accounts for what’s ready to sell – not execution! And amid the rise of omni-channel commerce, and consumers demanding variability around fulfillment, execution capabilities can soon impact delivery of that seemingly-available item.

In this respect, regardless of whether there is a product ready to sell, promising its arrival is another proposition entirely. Retailers now need to reflect this small but significant difference in their digital infrastructures, if they are to ensure promises are – truly – kept in the future.

Potential Execution Glitches

It may seem like a subtle difference, and that’s because it is. In truth, many of the OMS’s in place today will ensure fulfillment-as-promised the majority of the time. But what about the time that it doesn’t? What about the one time that execution wasn’t actually possible, despite the item being in stock? What is the impact of losing that customer, or of that customer posting negative reviews on social media? What does that small percentage of broken promises mean to a brand’s reputation?

Simply, leaving yourself exposed to the possibility of broken promises is too big a risk to take given the current complexity of supply chain networks. This complexity – embracing 10, 15, 30 or possibly more capacity metrics – ultimately decides whether execution of fulfillment is possible. If one link in that network isn’t functioning at full stride, then suddenly an ATP guarantee is demoted to ATS level, only.

Delving into those potential glitches, they account for labor shortages, transportation malfunctions or capacity concerns, third-party carrier limitations, and – now – the smooth running of all potential micro-fulfillment centres and even high street stores, depending on the customer’s fulfillment preference.

A product may well be available to sell as the buyer clicks purchase. But can the retailer truly promise its arrival, or the timing of an arrival, if any one of those connections don’t have the ability to meet the expectation?

Visibility and Connectivity

It’s a question that Blue Yonder has posed to numerous retailers in recent months, as – to their credit – they’ve looked to self-audit their current omni-channel capabilities. When posed the query of, ”Are you demonstrating ATS or ATP capabilities?,” a penny nearly always drops.

For most, there isn’t a burying of heads in sand – it’s simply that the difference is so slight, that it hasn’t occurred to them until now. And, once the realization has hit home, there is a resultant introspection on whether this inability to truly promise order execution has caused a loss of customers. That follow-up check often leads to the most important question: “How do we rectify this?”

Fortunately, Blue Yonder can quite simply showcase where improvements are needed, to this end. The OMS suites usually in place are open platforms that can embrace the addition of new rules that contribute to the overall notion of “execution capability”.

Rather than just delving into inventory data and revealing stock availability, there is a need to connect data relating to transport capacity, fleet availability, labor power, third-party resource, and all other supply metrics. These rules, through the integration of microservice solutions, can be added and deployed quickly and efficiently. The calculations are subsequently transformed from being an indictment of sale possibility, to a true reflection of what the retailer can promise each customer in real time.

The speed of deployment, relative to the significance of its upshots, often surprises brands. The notion of accessing and analyzing data from numerous different systems up and down the supply chain, instead of just one at the end, feels like it should be a long and arduous process. After all, this new-look, connected infrastructure also needs to account for manufacturing considerations in the form of inbound inventory, production capabilities and workforce fluctuations, before you consider the last mile concerns earmarked already.

Across such a vast and complicated chain, only complete, end-to-end visibility and connectivity can ensure that the full picture is accounted for, and an ultimate promise is representative of true capability.

A New Competition Metric

And boy, do these promises need to be kept!

Again, it might seem overly pedantic to address such a subtle difference between ATS and ATP. But that really is where we’re at in the customer trend journey.

The issue that retailers need to be wary of, is setting themselves up for a fall in the new look e-commerce world. Just as real-time visibility is key for the provider so they can see what is available from a purchase and fulfillment perspective; there is also the same pressure to make that information open to the consumer as well. Shoppers want access to real-time overviews of what they can expect, and even if it’s not exactly what they’re hoping for, they’ll appreciate the transparency at least.

Now imagine, amid this more mutual, interactive relationship, if a retailer is luring a customer all the way in with clear and present information that leads the customer to believe they have a complete grip on their order… only for that order to then be altered or cancelled due to execution restraints.

The more you promise, the worse it is to break that bond and guarantee. And, just as with promises in everyday social scenarios, such a let-down from a high height is unlikely to be forgiven quickly.

At that point, those same customers may well go in search of alternatives who can promise every element of the entire commerce proposition, and not just that there is a product for them to hand money over for.

Retail’s competitive landscape has, therefore, changed in its dynamic once again. Fortunately, this time, the shift from ATS to – true – ATP can be quick and undisruptive. And we see with our Blue Yonder OMS customers, the benefits are huge.

Learn more about Blue Yonder’s Order Management (OMS) microservices.