Nothing is more important in a retail store than a great store associate.
The focus of retail technology now is on supply chain. Rob Armstrong of Zebra Technologies put it perfectly when he told me, “we are focused on …four key questions: What is it? Where is it? How is it? What are you going to do about it?” With retail happening in both physical stores and online, individual items are getting shipped for pickup and returned to stores that weren’t originally intended. Moving individual items causes them to to handled more times than planned for and that’s expensive for retailers. The industry needs to get more efficient moving products around and that’s why it’s a big focus right now. Armstrong was talking at the most recent National Retail Federation Big Show, the largest annual gathering of retail industry leaders in the U.S. All over industry events, the focus of technology is on supply chain.
What I keep coming back to is that any supply chain technology won’t work by itself. Camille Kress, director of retail at online lingerie merchant AdoreMe, talked to me about what her company learned when it started opening stores. “There’s no technology that will do something on its own for the customers. The store associates have to be ambassadors for the technology to work,” she said. Retail technology has to think differently, focusing not just on products but on people, the people who work in stores.
Dorothy Kiely, senior vice president and general manager of Bloomingdale’s 59th Street flagship and Soho stores in New York, says that when she walks through her stores there’s a certain sound she can hear when the best associates are doing their jobs and customers are getting what they need. It’s the sound of business being done and happy customers. I don’t know what that sound is or how she hears it, but I know this: Technology that doesn’t take store associates into account can’t make that sound happen, it needs great store associates to make it happen.
Hilding Anderson, senior director and retail strategy lead for Publicis Sapient, says store associates need more power. To accomplish that, retailers need, “strategic agility…Organizations of the future have to have smaller, agile teams, working across silos.” He cites Walmart and Target as doing it, but believes even they haven’t gone far enough yet. Anderson says a retailer’s organizational chart should have, “flat, wide distributed responsibility, moving authority to the team and moving it down.” Mike Webster, SVP and general manager at Oracle, says technology is about “going from best practice to next practice.” In this case, that means putting technology in the hands of the store associate. That reduces turnover, employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction and ultimately increases sales and profits.
We are living in an era of rising labor costs and low unemployment and that makes finding and keeping great store associates harder and harder. Leaders agree that people are the difference between success and failure in retail stores and yet the world of retail technology is nearly silent on the topic. At the most recent Big Show, you could hardly find anyone discussing it. At the most recent eTail conference, there were no exhibits presenting software for store associates. Very few people are focused on it and that’s why it’s a big opportunity for the small number of players who are thinking about it now.
Help Is On The Way
There are now some companies whose software focuses on store employees and frames the conversation about technology and store associates in new ways. Steven Kramer, CEO of Workjam, summed up what that technology can do. Workjam’s software is built for the “nondesk workforce.” Those employees, he says, use their smartphone in every relationship they have but for some reason, the work environment is an exception. “Frontline employees…want a digital relationship with their employer as they do in every other relationship,” he says. But, “there’s been no innovation in HR and systems related to frontline employee management. For example, there are still binders in break rooms full of printed materials for training retail store employees.” Customers of Workjam, like Ulta and Shell, use employees’ mobile devices for clocking in/out, managing schedules, picking up shifts through an open shift marketplace, training, communication and task management—automating what have always been manual processes and making it much more employee-friendly.
Workjam isn’t the only one. GoSpotCheck helps retailers distribute tasks and direct store teams on a mobile app. Management reviews store performance on executive dashboards to measure performance and spot problems. GoSpotCheck’s software also includes image recognition capabilities, which save merchandisers time and help them take optimal action to seize opportunities instantaneously. It replaces a process that often never gets done because the investment of time is so great without the proper software. GoSpotCheck’s goal is to make sure store execution is as flawless as possible without taking store employees away from their primary task: servicing customers.
It goes further. Now there are industry-specific, employee-enabling apps. AllWork started in the beauty industry where the way products are sold is changing. The historical department store model is declining as department stores become less important and online sales are more of a threat to physical stores. The way brands and retailers hire employees, schedule their shifts and train them when they’re in far-flung places is logistically complex at a time when physical stores are challenged. AllWork helps with payments, administration, scheduling, budgeting and benefits and can expand into other industries.
Beauty Barrage is a deep dive on the beauty industry. It provides in-store advisers, trainers and managers for brands that have retail counters nationwide and it takes those advisers on as W-2 employees of its own while providing training and planning consistent with a brand’s values, image and strategy. Today Beauty Barrage manages in-store reps in over 4,000 locations and provides beauty industry clients with sales reports, operations support and merchandising expertise. By consolidating the needs of multiple brands on its one platform, Beauty Barrage says it can provide 40% savings in cost to customers compared to hiring and managing on their own. Clients include L’Oreal, Proactiv, L’Occitane and Nudestix.
Deviprasad Rambhatla, SVP and vertical head of retail distribution and transportation at $8.5 billion technology company Wipro Limited, explains that adopting a store associate-first mindset transforms workforce experiences. He cites work they did in grocery delivery that previously required two mobile devices and repetitive steps to the same location to complete tasks. Wipro rethought the process and gave the associate a single device to guide them through the process, which increased job satisfaction and reduced friction. Greater job satisfaction reduces turnover. In companies with thousands of employees, changing turnover rates, even by a little, has a big impact on profitability and customer satisfaction.
The industry has to solve the supply chain issues to move forward. But once that issue is overcome, it will take a focus on in-store employees to get the best use of the technology. For technology to work well, the people working in retail stores need to be happy and get the tools they need to succeed. Without that, no other technology will matter.