Shoppers walk by the GAP store at a shopping mall in Peabody, Mass. Doris Fisher and her late husband Donald founded the Gap in San Francisco in 1969. Gap Inc. has grown to include Banana Republic and Old Navy brands, among others, and operates over 3,000 stores across the world. Fisher is 42nd on Forbes's 2012 400 listUS--Forbes List-Self-Made Women, Peabody, USA

One of the biggest challenges in running a brick-and-mortar business is equipping sales associates with tools to help customers in real time. At scale, the challenge becomes epic — and no one knows that better than Gap Inc.

The apparel giant may embrace e-commerce and digital technologies in the new era, but its 3,000-plus stores across the world are still the beating heart of its operation. Some also function as a testbed for innovations in physical retail. Now, its latest tech initiative gives sales associates a powerful new window into real-time merchandise availability, so they can ensure their racks and shelves stay stocked with the latest products.

Gap Inc.’s digital and engineering teams developed a custom mobile solution called the In Stock on Shelf app. Think of it as giving store employees tech-powered eyes into the backroom.

“The In Stock on Shelf app directly addresses one of the top pain points we hear: finding something you love in the store but not finding it in your size or preferred color,” said Noam Paransky, senior vice president of digital. The company first tested the app in a pilot program across a select set of stores and was pleased with the results. It found that the rate at which an item was available in the stockroom, but not on the sales floor, fell to just 1 percent across all of the test locations. In other words, if customers were better able to find specific sizes and colors, because they were on the floor, not hiding in the back.

Now, Gap Inc. is deploying the tech across its U.S. locations for Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy.

This approach of using new tech to solve old problems could be a model for other large retailers. According to Steve Sarracino of Activant Capital, this merchandising dilemma still vexes department stores and big-box chains across a variety of categories.

“I gave a talk to 60 store managers for a very large retailer, and I asked, ‘What are your biggest problems?’ and they say ‘Stock out,’ or not having things in stock,” Sarracino said. He does note a shift in the way some companies operate and their mind-set in approaching these challenges, but the problem remains all too common. “This is the most important thing these brands are facing. They’ve got to get their product and merchandising right.”

Paransky notes that employees that have used the tool already love it for its simplicity and efficiency. As for customers, he believes it will enable better shopping experiences and drive a lot of positive customer feedback. “With the app rolled out across the Gap U.S. fleet, associates are alerted in real time when an item needs to be replenished from the stockroom,” he added. “It allows us to create a better experience for the customer, and gives our associates the ability to focus on better customer service.”

The In Stock on Shelf app joins myriad tech efforts spun out by the clothing company, many of which tied into physical locations. The Pick Up Today pilot program, in which Old Navy shoppers can buy online and pick-up-in-stores, is still in early trials across five test markets. But it’s already showing results, with high usage rates. The company also notes that roughly 25 percent of customers actually wind up scooping up other items during the trip. It also deployed mobile point-of-sale tech across 1,000 locations, which frees checkouts from counters to conduct them anywhere in the store, contactless payments that support mobile wallets from Apple, Google and Samsung, plus updates to its loyalty programs.

Ultimately, for Gap Inc., it’s about recognizing that many people still experience the brand through its shops. And while it focuses on its digital efforts, it manages to strike a tricky balance — forging ahead with innovations without leaving their physical stores behind.

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