With the COVID-19 pandemic sending such a shockwave through the retail industry, we were all hoping that we could finally get back to some sense of normalcy. But we know all too well that retail is always going through some level of disruption, and you are constantly at work to try and head off both new and existing challenges.
For example, while decades-high inflation seems to be receding, your customers are still uncertain about spending more of their discretionary income at stores. Even though consumer sentiment improved a bit at the end of 2022, it declined at the beginning of 2023 and sits at relatively low levels. And though customers are coming back to stores, they expect the seamless, convenient experience that they were offered during the COVID-19 pandemic. How do you feel you are doing? Are you meeting their expectations? Or is there still some work to do to get your store on par with the “Modern Store” framework they want to see?
E-commerce sales exceeded $1 trillion in 2022, the highest it has ever been. This makes it important for you to continue focusing on the in-store customer experience as well as web and mobile app experiences, optimizing how customers shift between online and physical shopping. And given the extremely high retail turnover rates – in 2022, almost half of all front-line retail employees reported a desire to leave their current jobs in the next three to six months – you must still accommodate workers’ varied needs in balance with business needs.
However, if you spend all your time reacting to these challenges, it’ll be like purging water from a leaky boat. So, the real question you should be asking yourself now isn’t, “How do I handle all of these challenges?” It’s “how do I make changes now to mitigate significant impact from inevitable macroeconomic and societal changes that threaten to disrupt my business?”
By proactively focusing on preventative measures instead of reactive stopgap measures, you can equip your store with the infrastructure needed to handle whatever operational challenges you and your team encounter. Whether it’s irregularity in staffing, wild fluctuations in store workloads, or an influx of customers during emergency situations, tooling your store operations with more modern systems that enable data to be digitally – and automatically – captured, aggregated, analyzed and actioned helps ensure that your store staff is able to actively manage and resolve these challenges in real time without panicking.
The best place to start is by thinking about what’s required to operate a profitable business – the three key ingredients baked into the “Modern Store” framework introduced at the NRF Big Show 2023:
What’s it going to take to simplify existing operational processes, such as store execution, labor forecasting and scheduling, and inventory management…without ripping, replacing, or disrupting anything? You might be saying, “A lot has to change.” But that’s not true. There are intelligent retail software platforms – and by “intelligent,” I mean AI algorithms – that can give you and your team the direction needed to improve outcomes within existing processes.
For example, if you want to…
1. Engage Associates
There are concrete ways you can help your employees become happier, more engaged, and more productive:
Optimizing workforce management processes, such as automating scheduling processes and implementing employee self-service solutions, can give your employees a greater say in their schedules and ensure they have schedules that take employee preferences and skill sets into account. Retailers have seen a reduction in store labor spend by up to 5% by using these solutions to utilize their labor more effectively.
Streamlining store execution with task management software is a great way to funnel automatically prioritized tasks to the right employees’ mobile devices. This gives them a list of tasks, updated in real time, that they can use to ensure they’re at the right place at the right time, working on the right tasks.
Simplifying communication and collaboration with real-time communication solutions enables employees to better engage with customers. It gives associates the ability to answer customer questions more quickly by working together with other employees, and it makes it easier for managers to provide in-the-moment feedback and ensure associates aren’t confused or frustrated with their work. That clarity has a huge impact on associates. By improving communication processes, retailers have been able to reduce employee turnover by up to 8%.
2. Optimize Inventory
There are a few steps you can take to help ensure that your customers’ expectations are met:
Improve on-shelf availability by providing a real-time accurate view of inventory quantity by location. This can be done by using an inventory management solution to conduct faster and lower-cost cycle counts, making it easier to continuously monitor stock and adjust prices as needed. More importantly, you can make sure you have the right stock on hand in the first place by tapping into AI algorithms that have been specifically refined to improve forecasting and planning accuracy. If you didn’t allocate or replenish the right quantities to meet demand, then there’s nothing your associates or direct-store-delivery (DSD) merchandisers can do to meet customers’ expectations. They can’t produce items on the spot to save sales.
Semi-automate in-store fulfillment by utilizing task management and real-time communication to inform employees when they need to handle orders and help them pick orders faster via guided picking tools. In doing so, customers won’t have to deal with extended wait times. Remember, the primary benefit of BOPIS is convenience. But it’s only convenient if a curbside or in-store pickup is faster than the customer shopping themselves. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone tell me they cancelled an online order that was still processing hours later when they arrived at the store because they were able to ultimately get in, grab what they needed, and get out faster.
Minimize loss and theft by using AI-powered analytics to detect unseen sources of product loss and prompt course-corrective actions to rectify issues. Loss prevention plays a role in inventory availability, and the more loss that can be caught and dealt with, the more optimized a retailer’s inventory will be. This also has a sizable impact on the bottom line. Retailers have seen product waste shrink rates lowered by up to 27% by using AI-powered analytics to reduce loss and theft.
3. Elevate the Customer Experience
You must enable associates with all the relevant information that a customer may need. Do your employees have the ability to ask their manager or other associates for product information? Can they locate products or access relevant inventory information? Retail associates need to be able to respond, at a moment’s notice, to any question that a customer may have, or risk breaking that seamless search-shop-pay experience that will increase transaction volume and value.
Equipping staff with the right mobile communication hardware and software is crucial to accomplishing this real-time response. Without a way to talk or text with other employees or check product information in real time, employees will only get in the customer’s way. Retail associates also need real-time directions about assigned tasks, whether the priority is putting up relevant signage, setting up in-store promotions, or restocking empty shelves. So much about the customer experience relies on employees being productive and informed so they can improve the in-store service and ensure that the shopper journey is completely frictionless.
Change a Lot on the Floor without Changing Much Behind the Scenes
You will always be going head-to-head with potentially disruptive events as there will always be crises around the corner or shifts in the market that are difficult to predict. That’s why it’s so important to create an operational structure that is agile enough to react to these changes without making life difficult for your associates and your customers – and that starts with injecting more intelligence into the operational technology infrastructure that’s keeping your people in the know and pointed in the right direction. The beauty of AI-powered software that’s trained to drive demand forecasting, planning, task management, loss prevention, and labor scheduling is that it doesn’t require you to completely rip and replace systems or re-engineer business processes. It can be surgically embedded within your existing framework. In turn, you can quickly reduce the risks, losses and uncertainties challenging your ability to keep customers, employees and executives happy.
Want to learn more? There’s a lot of information about how Zebra’s suite of store operations software platforms can help transform your retail stores and provide customers with a phenomenal retail experience on our website, so I suggest you start there. However, no two retail store operations are going to be designed or executed the same. So, reach out to your local Zebra representative to arrange a meeting with retail sales engineers who can help you craft the right software solution for your personal Modern Store framework.