More Consumers are Calling Ahead to Stores to See What’s on Shelves. But Are Your Associates Going to Be Able to Answer (Calls and Questions)?

Your team can’t stand by the phone or run up and down aisles all day confirming in-stock inventory. But there is a way they can handle call-aheads without falling behind on other tasks that will make customers happy.

A retail associate answers a transferred call via the Zebra Workforce Connect app on their mobile device
by Alex Fryer
April 13, 2022

Before online check in existed, people used to call ahead to get on a wait list at restaurants – or determine if the wait was too long to even bother. Boy, I thought those days were gone forever. Then I started hearing experts and retailers themselves recommend that people call ahead to stores to confirm they can get what they want in a timely manner, and I cringed a bit.

In a way, telling people to call ahead makes it feel like we're going backwards. (With all the technology available today, why aren’t retailers giving customers accurate real-time inventory visibility online or in mobile apps?)

But I think what bothered me most is that store workers are so busy as it is. They don't have time to field calls from customers wanting them to lay eyes on items to confirm they’re available and asking associates to grab and hold items might work in certain retail categories, but not grocery. (Storage space is already at a premium thanks to the increased use of click-and-collect service.)

Plus, I know many associates still can't answer customer calls unless they're parked by a landline all day, and having associates run back and forth from the phone to the stockroom or store aisles for visual verifications isn’t productive. It’s far more valuable to both you and the customer to have them focused on picking orders and restocking shelves to get people what they want and avoid wasted trips to the store (which would eliminate the need for call aheads).

Sure, you could have someone at customer service answering calls. But are they really going to walk away to go confirm availability? No. They’re going to put the caller on hold, try to track down someone who can go check the shelf or stockroom, and then make the person standing in front of them wait all the while.

So, yes, seeing experts suggest call ahead to confirm what's in stock makes me nervous for everyone, as I don't see anyone really benefitting. (Even if the caller is told an item is in stock, unless it’s pulled and held right then, it may not be there by the time they get to the store.)

What would make me feel better?

If I knew the store associates charged with answering those calls or visually confirming inventory were doing so from a mobile device that would enable them to keep moving through other tasks in between, or even during calls. In fact, the person answering the calls could technically be sitting at a desk in a back office or maybe even in the comfort of their home office. If store workers were equipped with mobile computers that would allow them to accept calls and report real-time location, then the operator could see who was in the dairy department at that very moment and transfer the customer to that worker to confirm if milk has been restocked.

This would almost guarantee that every customer call gets answered right away and that transfers, if necessary, wouldn't result in the operator repetitively coming back on the line saying they would try again. It could even eliminate the worst-case scenario: that no one picks up at the store after several minutes of ringing lines or multiple transfer attempts to the right department.

Of course, you could also make call-ahead inventory checks fast and painless by giving customers a direct line to mobile-empowered, front-line workers. If the store’s auto-answer service tells the customer to ‘press 2’ for dairy, then the call would be routed to whichever mobile computer is being used by the dairy department worker at that moment.

How would the system know which worker or mobile computer is currently located in dairy?

If workers’ devices are equipped with a mobile communication and collaboration app such as Zebra Workforce Connect, which has dynamic role assignment, locationing, as well as PBX and push-to-talk (PTT) capabilities, then the answering system could hypothetically be programmed to send dairy calls to whoever is logged in as the dairy associate. If calls accidentally transfer to the wrong person, then the person who answers could use Workforce Connect to see who is actually in dairy (as in physically located there right now) and then use PTT to call the person and have them quickly confirm if milk is back in stock.

This same use case could apply to curbside or delivery services, too.

If you notify your curbside and delivery customers about out of stocks identified during picking an hour or two before the scheduled pickup or delivery time, it’s possible they are going to call the store to see if an acceptable substitute may be available. This is especially true if you don't give them the option to indicate substitution preference when placing the order. Then again, maybe the customer is just hopeful the item they originally requested has been replenished in the last hour or so. (Things move just as quickly back onto shelves as they do off them these days.)

Depending on your fulfillment setup, it's possible the associate answering those calls is working in the dark store and taking calls from a central workstation. So, either they or another associate would likely have to walk away from the phone to see what’s currently available elsewhere in the dark store, stockroom/loading dock and/or front of store. If the associate confirms the only option is a substitution, they may have to run back and forth from the workstation to the aisle once again to grab an item after returning the customer's call and confirming if available substitutions are acceptable.

However, if that associate had a mobile computer with full telephony capability, they can just return the call from the aisle. Or if the person answering the customer’s call can’t leave their station right now, they could use PTT to ask another associate to look into the customer’s request. Whether they found the item the customer wanted or could only offer an alternative, the update could be relayed back from PTT quite quickly and the customer’s call can be returned within minutes – if a callback is even necessary. With this method, the issue may be resolved with just a short hold. The customer will be happy. Store associates won’t be run ragged. And the recommendation to “call ahead” might just become a winning strategy for shoppers and retailers alike.

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Alex Fryer
Alex Fryer is currently the Intelligent Edge Solutions (IES) Regional Product Manager and responsible for driving the go-to-market in EMEA for Zebra’s IES portfolio.
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