And so the holidays are upon us. With the fantastic opportunities we have working with retailers all year long, the team at Parker Avery is naturally more in tune with all the preparations retailers and their partners make leading up to the holiday season than the average consumer. So the shopping season is really not something that should sneak up on us…right? Wrong…

Somehow it always does.

So for the last 6 years, I’ve done the Super Mom thing for my son and “magically” the Elf on the Shelf appears each December 1st, fully loaded with tricks, messes, notes and little gifts. I’m a bit OCD about this, and I always have it all ready to go prior to December with each day leading up to Christmas planned out, labeled, inventoried and ready to go so I’m not scrambling at the last minute. However, even with the best prep and intentions, there are always the mornings when I’ve realized too late that the Elf has not moved from the day before, my son has figured this fact out before I have, and I’m scrambling to quickly make something up to keep the magic alive.

This year is no exception. Once I figured out that yes, indeed, Thanksgiving weekend is the last weekend before December, I needed to get moving. Fortunately a few years ago, the gods at LEGO decided to make Advent calendars (I’m sure with me specifically in mind). These are the greatest things ever…there’s a LEGO character or item for each day of the month. My son is a huge fan of LEGO Star Wars, so this should have been a no-brainer.

We are in the middle of moving into a new house, so my efficiency during this particular holiday shopping season absolutely has to be at its best. I don’t have a lot of time to be running to a million different stores or checking for the best price online – particularly since a quick online price check revealed only a few dollars difference for this item. So I go online to my favorite big box retailer to check on availability. “Currently unavailable online” was not as threatening as the big red “Out of stock” in nearly every single store within an hour radius of my house. My pulse quickens, as I’m seeing what should be a fairly simple task seems to have become complicated too quickly.

And now it’s me vs. every other Elf-inspired mom to find my LEGO Star Wars Advent calendar.

I scan the stores online again, and….wait. There are two stores that show “In Stock” – one actually near the house I’m moving out of and the other in between the two homes. It’s only 7:30am, but I’m determined to get this thing. I jump in my car. I risk at least 2 traffic tickets and major coffee spillage to get to the store. My frenetic parking job would make most OCD sufferers faint. I sprint into the store, unaware or caring that I’ve not showered or even thought about make-up, but certain I will be happily and calmly leaving with the coveted Advent calendar in hand. I am confident that this retailer’s inventory accuracy is, well…accurate.

Once again…wrong.

Breathlessly, I make it to the LEGO section. OK, no big deal, it’s a seasonal item, so I shouldn’t expect to find it on the regular LEGO shelves. I scan the end caps…every end cap in the toy section and adjoining sections. I go to the holiday section. Not a LEGO Advent calendar to be found. My confidence in this retailer has not yet been shattered. But my adrenaline and stress levels are now increasing dramatically as I’m envisioning a future laborious task of identifying and procuring an alternative to the evidently highly coveted LEGO Star Wars Advent calendar.

I am on a mission from God…(ok, well maybe not quite that dramatic… from Santa?)

A very helpful sales associate – who has one of their mobile inventory devices, approaches me. Of course. They have a bunch of these things in the back room, and have been anxiously awaiting my arrival to bring out one earmarked just for me. I calmly and politely ask her if she knows where they are kept. She tells me she’s pretty sure they sold out of those yesterday because she had to reset the end cap.

Uh oh.

The sales associate consults a colleague, and they both consult the magic inventory handheld. “There’s one in the Brandermill store and negative two in Glen Allen,” I am told. Negative two??? I ask them how often their system is updated, and I am told it’s once per day at noon. I also ask if what they can see is the same as what customers see online. Nope. They tell me there’s a truck coming tomorrow and there might be more Advent calendars on the truck. My hopes rise. “Can you see what’s on the truck?” the consultant (and ever-hopeful mom) in me asks. They tell me since they’re not a “high volume” store that no, they can’t. This confuses me – why should the volume of a store dictate whether or not the store associates have visibility into future deliveries? Doesn’t it ideally all get recorded in the system before the product even gets on the truck?

Doesn’t this retailer understand that this situation will be repeated across the country about 12,000 times over the holiday season?

So now I have absolutely no confidence in the online accuracy of this retailer. They still have my loyalty for a number of reasons, but my certainty in them has dimmed significantly. I leave the store and make my way home, considering my options. I actually brave my favorite retailer’s major competitor in the hopes that I could score, but the trip is fruitless.

I text a friend who lives near the Brandermill location and ask him to check for the item, as was suggested by the store associates. His report is not good: not only did he not find the item, but the store associate he spoke with really didn’t even seem to know what he was talking about. He actually was told that the store I just left had two in stock. I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to order from eBay or Amazon and take the chance that the item would arrive by December 1.

On a whim, I decide to try the location closest to my current home – just in case the retailer’s inventory accuracy issues could possibly be in my favor at this store. I methodically stalk the LEGO and seasonal sections, this time with really not much hopes of finding the item. I even glance at a few of the other shoppers’ carts in hopes I can possibly bribe them for the Advent calendar, should one of them be so lucky.

And then, like a mirage…I see it.

Buried behind two other LEGO Star Wars sets on an end cap is my Advent calendar… Almost tripping over my own feet, I grab the box and hug it close. Despite our early morning searches through four different stores and using up my phone’s battery in trying to locate this single item, it is now found and Christmas is saved. All is right with the world.

At least all is right in my little world. What about those other thousands of shoppers that will have to endure the same frantic ordeal over the next few weeks? What happened to all this talk about the nirvana of inventory accuracy and availability? I suppose I could understand if this company was not one of the top-performing retailers, but they are. It’s shocking to me that this process was so difficult. It begs the need for increased attention to not just inventory accuracy and visibility, but for this information to be in real or near time to both customers and store associates. What’s more, there was not even an option to have my item reserved in-store or even delivered to my store.

While it’s a known fact that the store is still a significant driver of retail sales, if shoppers do not have the confidence that brick and mortar retailers can deliver on expectations of inventory availability, then those customers will quickly gravitate to the online or nearby competition. The inventory issues are certainly not a quick or inexpensive fix, but retailers should certainly make these a much higher priority.

I have to give huge thumbs up for most of the store associates who helped me; they were very pleasant and as helpful as they could be, but sadly their hands were tied due to insufficient on-hand and in-transit inventory information.

Despite my tumultuous shopping adventure, my Star Wars LEGO Advent calendar now awaits its appearance with the Elf on December 1st. My son will be thrilled, which brings me great joy. I wish you all much peace and joy during this holiday season. Oh, and may the Force be with you.

– Tricia