Retail Store Associates Have More to Do Than Ever Before. Here are Three Ways to Support Them.

From curbside pickup to in-store fulfillment, retail store associates must work faster to support today’s customers. But you can help them work smarter, so they don’t have to feel like the work is hard.

A retail store manager works a point of sale desk
by Kevin Tapscott
January 24, 2022

Retail constantly shifts with the times, but the last few years have seen dramatic changes given what customers now expect from retail stores and the new services required to preserve customer loyalty, generate revenue and remain profitable. The COVID-19 pandemic drove much of this acceleration, pushing customers away from long shopping events in brick-and-mortar stores and toward a variety of omnichannel services that allow for quick pickups, assuming trips to the store are even warranted. Home delivery services are in high demand. And though customers are starting to shop from physical shelves once again versus solely filling their online carts, their use of omnichannel services is here to stay:

  • Curbside Pickup: At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, curbside pickup at retail stores soared, surging 208% between April 1 and April 20 compared to that time frame in 2019. And a whopping 60% of shoppers just confirmed in Zebra’s 14th Annual Global Shopper Study that they still prefer retailers that let them pick up items curbside, in-store, or at another location such as a locker. However, these high adoption rates come with a caveat. Customers today expect convenient, free, and fast service when picking up their orders, especially now that many click-and-collect services have been available for almost two years. The kinks should have been worked out already, so their tolerance for mistakes or delays is shrinking.

  • Online Returns: In 2020, returns increased up to 70% in the week between Christmas and New Year’s when compared to averages at earlier points in the year. This followed a trend of increasing online holiday returns, which jumped 41% for the 2020 holiday season, likely because more customers were shopping online for gifts during the pandemic. But with much of customers’ pandemic-spurred online behavior now becoming the norm, and with e-commerce continuing to grow in 2021, online returns will certainly continue to be a monumental task for retailers to handle into the future. Seven-in-10 retail decision-makers say they are under pressure to manage online returns more efficiently, which is only being compounded by consumer pressures. Nearly eight-in-10 shoppers say they prefer retailers that offer easy returns by mail or in-store – a decision factor that ranks higher than anything else per the findings of Zebra’s latest Global Shopper Study. 

  • In-Store Fulfillment: Many retailers are embracing ship-from-store options, using retail stores as fulfillment centers, whether via dark store setups or direct picks from front-of-store shelves. This trend has accelerated during the pandemic, with big-box retailers starting in November 2020 to fill some online orders directly from stores to reduce delivery times. This is predicted to continue well into the future, with stores expected to use more in-store space for fulfillment as e-commerce rises.

All these expanded processes have a dramatic impact on the workload of store associates. In addition to completing their typical daily tasks, such as stocking shelves and assisting customers in stores, they must also fulfill curbside pickup orders and prepare ship-from-store orders. This creates a lot of extra pressure, and in today’s tight labor market, dissatisfied employees can easily find work elsewhere.

However, equipped with the right retail technology, store associates can better handle heavier workloads, with much of the burden of prioritizing and tracking tasks offloaded onto intelligent software solutions. By streamlining communication and execution processes, you can prescriptively direct your store associates to the right task at the right time, making it easier for them to both complete daily tasks and keep managers informed about the status of task execution. 

Here are some ways to support your store associates as they contend with expanded workloads:

1. Intelligently and prescriptively direct store associates through their days by optimizing workflows. 

Even the best store associates may not be able to handle workflows that inadequately distribute tasks across store teams. However, real-time task management solutions centralize all tasks generated by corporate teams, on-site staff, Internet of Things (IoT) devices, and third-party systems. They will then intelligently distribute tasks based on staffing levels, customer traffic, and other critical variables. This ensures tasks are distributed evenly and equitably across available associates and keeps any one associate from being overburdened with too much to do. 

Store managers also have the ability to easily forward or reassign tasks based on availability or skill set, allowing for small adjustments to associates’ workloads so everyone has the ability to adequately execute their tasks. By ensuring that store associates have more manageable workloads, you’ll see a boost in task completion rates as well as employee engagement and retention. Associates who aren’t overburdened with work are more content during their shifts and are more likely to look favorably at their managers and the retail company as a whole.

2. Provide store associates with real-time information.

Even if associates’ workloads are manageable, without the most up-to-date information they might miss critical tasks such as product recalls, spills or obstructions in aisles, or late truck arrivals. Real-time task management solutions drive an instant response with alerts, notifications and task assignments sent directly to an associate’s mobile device the moment  an issue comes up. With these alerts automatically sent based on pre-set conditions, such as a curbside pickup order that needs to go outside, associates can easily access the latest information. Each “best next step” to take will be laid out for them to help address any unplanned issues at your stores.

3. Make it easier for associates to collaborate and learn.

Store associates can’t do everything alone, especially considering that relatively new processes such as setting up ship-from-store orders and fulfilling curbside pickup may be confusing at first. With peer-to-peer communication solutions that allow for real-time messaging, associates can quickly connect with each other to gather the latest information on new processes. These solutions have the capability to create group chats so experienced associates can easily assist a group of new associates. They can even attach and share images or files to provide additional information on requests or recommendations. By giving them a method to easily contact one another, these solutions reduce the time it takes to complete important projects and, consequently, boost task completion rates. 

If you’re interested in learning more about how to empower your store associates, visit our website or contact our team. We would be glad to discuss the challenges your employees are facing and what we can do to help empower your staff. 

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Kevin Tapscott
Kevin Tapscott is Vice President of Solution Consulting for the Americas at Reflexis, which is now part of Zebra Technologies. He leads a team of retail operations experts who help retailers simplify their operations and optimize their labor with intelligent task management and workforce management software solutions.
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