The heart of retail will remain the same no matter what digital brings

By Richard Clarke, - Future Workplace 2025 - ArticlesProductivityRetail

I’ve been working in retail for 28 years. In all that time I’ve never seen as much disruption as there is now.

Some well-known retailers are shutting stores, some even going out of business, as they address both the Amazon-effect and the need to attract ever-demanding, tech-savvy customers into their stores. In many cases the fundamental issue is that retailers are having to fund the operating costs of multiple selling channels with the revenue previously derived from stores alone.

It feels like everything has changed.

But has it really?

Retail is all about connecting with the customer. This core principle is the same as it was a hundred years ago.

And people – colleagues, associates – remain key to making this happen. In retail, your employees, especially in stores, will always be your best asset, and you need to support and empower them if you’re going to get the best out of your business.

In this blog post I’m going to explain how you can do this. I’ll draw on some of the points I made in the webinar ‘The Essential Guide to Building a Future-Proof Workplace’ using the research from the  Workplace 2025 Survey report.

The retail workforce is unique

Being an employee in retail is unlike working in any other sector.

This is because the retail workforce is highly distributed. For most stores-based retailers around 95% of workers will be located in stores in a variety of geographical locations dotted around a specific geography. Fort the largest retailers it can mean managing 150,000+ colleagues in several thousand stores.

On top of this a store workforce can be large – keeping a store open all hours of the day needs a big team. A flagship store can easily have 300 people on the payroll. Running a store is more like running an army than conducting an orchestra.

These scale and distribution factors make managing the store workforce extra complex.. And this is where technology comes in.

You can improve the on-boarding process for new starters hugely if you digitalise it, for instance. You can use robotic process automation to help input new starter information into the company system – a job that would previously have been done by a manager who can now get back onto the shop floor.

Retail employees are also unique in that they carry out a lot of different tasks in one day. But if you provide employees with mobile devices like tablets that display an interactive to-do list for the whole team, the stress of task allocation and completion is removed.

Another quirk of the retail industry is that employees are most often ‘on stage’, in front of customers, and this can make communication, training and task management on the shop floor problematic.

However, if all employees are provided with a wearable device they will be able to communicate seamlessly across the shop floor without interrupting any interaction with customers. Tasks can be allocated quickly, completion acknowledged and customer service improved.

Ultimately, it’s clear: the challenges presented by the retail industry can be overcome with a smart application of the right tech.

Technology can add complexity, so use it wisely

According to the Workplace 2025 Survey Report:

  • 93% of people working in retail say that their current workplace tools are too complex
  • 86% say that interoperability with outdated technology is holding them back

For people to derive benefit from the technology in the workplace, it has to be simple and easy to use. In recent surveys we found store staff used their own smartphones for price checking and product reviews because the corporate handouts we not user friendly or failed to work.

The best way to create this simplicity is to emulate consumer technology.  The best consumer tech brands have made a name for themselves through their intuitive approach.  If you’re building an enterprise app, this is the approach you want to follow.

The second thing to consider is the reliability of the tech you put out on the shop floor.

Shops are not domestic environments. They’re busy places with lots of people and traffic. Things can easily get broken. This means that any technology deployed in this setting has to be seriously durable so it doesn’t break and disrupt the customer experience or require an employee to come and fix it.

But the basic point to remember when it comes to introducing new technology in a retail environment is value. Only add new technology if it will benefit the employees, or if it will add to the customer experience in-store.

There’s no point digitizing things just for the sake of it, since added complexity only slows things down and stresses people out.

Don’t burden your staff with fixes

Your best asset is your staff, so it’s wise to keep them on the shop floor.

This means you need IT support that doesn’t waste any time.

You need workplace tools that allow employees to send messages to the helpdesk when things go wrong and get a self-help message back telling them how to fix it.

This means the employee can return to the fix whenever is convenient for them instead of them being stuck on a long phone call, potentially when the store is busy.

Or better still: with intelligent engineering, which predicts and prevents problems before they arise, you can ensure that things never break in the first place – meaning retail staff won’t ever be called away from the shop floor.

A bright future with the right tech

There are lots of questions about future of the retail. Is it in-store or online?

I think it will be a blend, online and offline, criss-crossing from your desktop at home to a store colleague’s tablet in the store to your smartphone to complete the purchase. All these devices and systems need to talk to each other and share one version of the truth, it goes without saying that a great level of customer service and understanding must run throughout.

Technology holds the key to this. It can speed task allocation, colleague communication, customer transactions and tech support so retail employees can spend their time where it matters most: the customer experience.

Ultimately, this is what good workplace technology does. It powers the people at the heart of your business.

This is one thing about retail that will never change.

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