It was wonderful to sit down with Mark Thomson to talk through the findings of the 15th Annual Global Shopper Study from Zebra Technologies.
Here’s what stood out for me:
💵 While nearly 75% of shoppers say inflation has caused them to delay purchases, they’re still returning to stores but most (76%) want to get in and out as quickly as possible.
😯 3 in 4 shoppers leave without the items they intended to purchase, with 49% blaming out-of-stocks.
📶 More than two-thirds of associates are concerned that shoppers are more connected to information than they are.
🙂 Seven-in-10 shoppers are satisfied with help from retail associates, compared to only 37% in 2007.
📱 Pandemic habits are sticking: approximately 90% of shoppers said they are likely to continue using technologies such as a personal shopping device, mobile cashless payment and self-checkout. And retailers are responding: nearly HALF of retailers said they would convert more manned till space to self-checkout in the future.
The most successful consumer-facing businesses today are those that uncover their customers’ needs first and then work backwards to provide the right experience. In theory, customer experience should have always been at the heart of retailers’ strategies from day one. After all, the whole point of retail is to serve the customer. But, let’s face it, for a long time, retailers were able to dictate the terms.
As Eddie Capel, CEO of Manhattan Associates, told me at the Manhattan Exchange in Berlin last month: “We got used to a no culture. Do you have my size? No. When might it be back in stock? Dunno. There was a lot of no in retail for a long time. Retail has turned into a ‘yes culture’.”
But what sparked that change? I was intrigued to hear his thoughts because this formed the very foundation of my and Miya Knights’ Amazon book, so I naturally had a few ideas of my own on the topic.
“Retailers did not have to worry about loyalty, but that has changed immensely now. Creating a ‘yes culture’ has become key, and Amazon and others have pushed retailers on service and delivery promises. Technology is helping to keep those promises,” Capel added.
I couldn’t agree more. As customers today, our tolerance for mediocrity is pretty low. We expect to shop on our terms. We no longer accept bland, vanilla retail experiences. Instead, we want the red carpet rolled out for us. We want a white-glove experience. We want to be wowed, surprised and delighted.
Retailers have made significant progress in blending the physical and digital worlds, but there is still more to do. In the whitepaper that I authored for Manhattan Associates, we found that just 6% of retailers that we surveyed have an accurate view of their inventory across their entire business 100% of the time. I have to admit, that figure shocked me given that we are living in this on-demand era where customers are hyper-informed and, in Capel’s words, retailers need to be “promise keepers”. How seamless of an experience can you offer if you don’t consistently know where your stock is?
Another area where I see room for improvement – and this was reaffirmed by the report – is returns. Even today, the post-purchase experience is often neglected. For example, only around half of retailers we spoke to allow customers to buy online and return in-store (46%) or buy in-store and return online (50%).
Enabling this level of flexibility and cohesion will enhance the experience for the customer, but more needs to be done to stamp out returns from happening in the first place. The industry needs to collectively address its perennial problem. In recent years, retailers themselves have exacerbated this problem in an attempt to appease the customer – offering free returns and encouraging a buy-to-try mentality.
There is some progress being made, for example around sizing/fit among fashion retailers. Some have even gone to the extreme of charging for returns, very much uncharted territory for a sector where over one-third of purchases are returned. And let’s not forget, as counter intuitive as it may seem, those big returners are often a retailer’s most valuable customers.
But it’s better for all parties to get it right in the first instance. Looking across the wider retail industry, another way to reduce the rate of returns is by giving customers greater control over fulfilment. As things currently stand, all control is lost once the customer places an order. If they want to change their delivery or edit their basket, it’s simply too late. It then becomes a return.
Giving customers more control post-purchase doesn’t just translate to a better customer experience – which ultimately drives greater loyalty – but it also has both economic and environmental benefits. Brian Kinsella, SVP, Product Management argues that customers should be granted a window in which they could change their mind on fulfilment method, for example switching from home delivery to click & collect and vice versa. Kinsella even believes that shoppers should be able to cancel an online order. Why? To drive down returns, or what he calls “unnecessary shipments”.
In Berlin, Kinsella also called out the importance of communication post-purchase. More retailers, for example, should be utilising real-time messaging with home delivery, again to simultaneously improve the experience for the customer while ensuring someone is in to receive the delivery.
Historically, retailers may have begrudged looking beyond immediate customer needs, but today it’s imperative that retailers proactively address pain points. They need to be continuously re-evaluating the customer journey, identifying and removing any new points of friction and ensuring that they are going above and beyond. The risk of inaction is simply too great.
Retailers have accelerated digital transformation strategies over the past few years. How have you seen the industry evolve?
Retail is in the process of redefining itself and we continue to see the repurposing of the physical store in this new digital world. You can leverage more aspects of a physical store compared to a purely online engagement. This is why retailers need to view their stores as assets, rather than just a weight of costs. It doesn’t matter if people buy while in the store; what matters is we influence them.
The industry is now in a more complex phase than at any other point in its history, but retailers don’t want technology companies throwing solutions at them. What they want to know: is who is doing it well? Who should we look at and how do we get there?
Ten years ago, everybody trekked off to New York in January [for the NRF show] because the US was leading the way in technology. I think that’s kind of changed now. European retailers have become trailblazers, especially when it comes to online adoption in places like the UK, Netherlands and the Nordics.
Let’s talk automation. It gets a bad rap at times, so can you talk us through the drivers and benefits?
When I talk about automation and productivity solutions, I always get asked: “Doesn’t that just put people out of work?” Well, a lot of retailers are struggling to find people. It’s not a case of retailers wanting to reduce the staff they have, it’s just that they can’t attract people in the first place. People today don’t want to work a 40-hour-plus week in a retail environment, so retailers are left trying to find ways to improve productivity among their existing staff.
Also, with wages increasing rapidly, the cost per employee has also increased, meaning higher productivity is a key goal. Retailers are there to provide the goods, services, and experiences that consumers want, but they also need to make a profit for the business. And everywhere you look today – supply chain, fuel, lighting, labour – input costs are going up.
In conjunction with this, shoppers are increasingly choosing self-service options and retailers have to implement automation technologies to support that, from self-scanning to electronic shelf edge labels as well as robotics. All play a part, but staff will continue to be crucial in delivering the best experience, so I see a hybrid future.
I totally agree. Tech-enabled human touch is going to separate the winners from the losers going forward. How can mobile technology in particular improve the associate experience?
We have to move to a situation where all staff are connected – to communicate with other members of staff, to self-serve in terms of their scheduling, just to name a couple of examples.
Believe it or not, many store associates today are using WhatsApp groups to communicate. The retailers I’ve spoken to don’t officially allow it but they’re essentially turning a blind eye to it because that is currently the best way to boost productivity and collaboration. Store managers are still spending several hours a week creating rotas in Excel. And we’re still running and monitoring stores based on old measures, for example asking staff to leave their mobile phones in their lockers.
Staff want more flexibility. They want to choose if they want to work on Saturday night. They want to look for a shift rather than being told to work one. The bulk of today’s retail workforce have grown up with technology, so automation is well suited to meet their needs and, at the same time, it helps retailers to manage their productivity and profitability. It will generally make the workplace a better place to be because you’ll end up with happier customers.
Let’s explore that in more detail. Customer experience is becoming the new battleground in retail. How might the role of store staff need to change to support this shift?
There’s only one way to an amazing customer experience and that is staff experience. If you employ the right staff, train and incentivise them in the right way, and give them the right tools to get the job done… then they become your ambassadors.
When a customer leaves the store dissatisfied, it’s usually due to 1 of 2 reasons: either they can’t find the product they’re looking for or the staff were unable to help. As an industry, we need to address this. Retail has become very operational and functional. It’s no longer somewhere people look to as a career. This has to change – how do you make retail an attractive career? There needs to be progression and it needs to be enjoyable.
But store staff today have more tasks than they did 5-10 years ago. Complexity and workloads for retailers have increased to incorporate not only store operations but also for online fulfillment, so staff are now tasked with serving customers while also handling collections, processing returns, etc. As soon as they get any free time, they’re filling gaps on the shelves. There’s no down time. A decade ago, it was a more relaxed environment. Still pressured but nothing like today. You can’t throw more staff at this problem, you need technology.
We want happy customers. We want to be able to predict exactly what those customers want. We don’t want to have too few products. We also don’t want to have too many. The more technology you add to your store, the more data you generate which you can then analyse further to improve the set-up, process, assortment and staffing.
Let’s close by discussing RFID (Radio Frequency Identification). Has its time finally come and, if so, why now?
It’s a great question and one I get asked every year. Retailers across all sectors know the technology and at some point have looked into it. The drivers now are different, and I think this will see a renewed growth of adoption.
RFID enables greater confidence in store stocks allowing the store to be a distributed online fulfilment centre. Higher stock accuracy levels reduce overstocks, which improves the bottom line (critical at this challenging financial time). Customer satisfaction improves too, as they have better visibility of items available. Meanwhile, retail staff are able to quickly respond to out-of-stocks by ordering the product from another store or the DC and having it delivered (what we call “saving the sale”). Everybody wins. The technology is tried and tested but as the benefits and implementation elements hit multiple departments, the project needs high level support. When a project gets this, it’s transformational.
Mark and his team at Zebra have just launched a Retail Maturity Model to help retailers on their technology journey. Learn more about the roadmap and how it can help retailers to improve inventory visibility and labour management.
Greetings from Germany! I’m here at the Manhattan Exchange in Berlin and am super excited to share with you a new report that I’ve authored for Manhattan Associates: Recalibrating for the Next Normal.
The pandemic may have accelerated digital transformation strategies, but what comes next? We spoke to 3,500 consumers and 700 leading retailers across the US and Europe to get a better sense of the consumer landscape and the capabilities required as retailers recalibrate for this next stage.
The findings of this international research study highlight the need for retailers to continue to keep up with the pace of evolving consumer expectations. It also revealed a retail landscape where the lines between physical and digital commerce are becoming increasingly opaque and complicated.
In celebration of International Women’s Day (IWD), I spoke to two of Manhattan Associates’ female leaders – Ann Sung Ruckstuhl, SVP and Chief Marketing Officer, and Heather Mahan, Vice President, Professional Services. From balancing careers with motherhood to overcoming imposter syndrome, we candidly explore some of the challenges that women in business face and share inspirational ideas for change among future female leaders.
Can you name a female role model and how she has influenced your career?
HM: My very first professional experience was at a Fortune 300 chemical manufacturing company. My manager led the quality department and was one of a few female directors in the company. To this day more than 25 years later, I think about and strive to emulate her leadership style, her presence among her peers and her senior management team, her pragmatism, and her confidence.
In a company of engineers and chemists, mostly men, she with her journalism degree brought up female leaders and built balanced-gender and high-performing teams. I didn’t realize at the time what an influence she would have on me but looking back now I am beyond grateful that she was my first boss.
What is the most important piece of advice you have ever been given?
ASR: To move up, you have to be willing to move laterally or even down occasionally for the right opportunities. Keep your eyes on the prize but pace yourself. There are many ways to the top.
“IWD means celebrating and recognizing the significant contributions that women have made to our societies at large. It is an invitation and call-of-action to women of all ages to dream big, speak up and take actions.” – Ann Sung Ruckstuhl
What are the biggest challenges that women in business face today?
ASR: I see two big challenges for women in business today. First, a self-defeating attitude which causes women to constantly second-guess ourselves before reaching for the stars. We tend to over-prepare, under-appreciate our abilities, and end up “not putting our names in the hat” for that next opportunity or promotion. Second, a general lack of C-level sponsors who are willing to coach and give women a shot at the top c-level jobs.
HM: Being a mom and a woman in business is a juggling act. Women still often carry the majority of kid duty, from getting groceries and planning meals, to laundry, to homework help, to shuttling to practice and rehearsal, to making and taking doctor and dentist appointments. The shift in duties at home has not happened as quickly as the shift in our hours at the office, and women in business are challenged to be everything to everyone.
Can you share a time you encountered a challenge as a woman in business and how you overcame it?
ASR: The biggest challenge I encountered in business came as I embarked on motherhood. There were so many moments of discouragement that made me want to step off the fast track. Having to return to work in less than 6 weeks after childbirth, figuring out how to continue to nurse while traveling for business, worrying about quality childcare; there were so many obstacles to overcome. My saving grace was having a supportive husband, a network of friends and trusted paid help who provided the necessary “infrastructure” to make work and life possible.
HM: One of the most common challenges I’ve faced and continue to face is having to work a little harder than male counterparts to establish credibility. I remember being barely 25 when I was sent to Sao Paulo to support a troubled project start up. It took a solid three days until any of the leaders at the site would even acknowledge me, much less listen. However, by the end of the week I had a queue of supervisors asking me for help solving their problems. They begged me to stay an extra week, and when I did eventually fly home, they sent me home with hugs and gifts.
“We need to seek out talented women and mentor them early and often.” – Heather Mahan
What is your proudest professional moment to date?
HM: Two years ago, Manhattan launched Manhattan Active Warehouse Management, our new warehouse management system, versionless and born in the cloud. I led the team that implemented that new solution successfully for our first customer, through COVID, labour shortages, and the supply chain disruption that was 2020. That implementation more than any other in which I’ve participated brought together colleagues from nearly all parts of our organization. Together we delivered value beyond expectation for our customer and in the process ignited the market for our innovative new technology.
How can we encourage more women into leadership positions?
ASR: The desire to lead must come from within. For those who are not interested in leadership positions, it is ok. For those who are interested, we can encourage them to take next steps by doing a couple of things. First, make yourself available for coaching, mentoring, skip-level 1:1s and informational interviews. Second, be your authentic self and share your experiences, routes to leadership, and useful life hacks freely. Actions speak louder than words. Women learn from each other naturally; interactions and benefits go both ways indeed.
HM: As one of a handful of senior female leaders at our company, I try to be highly visible and available for any conversation about career progression, how to balance work and family, and provide input on hard problems, off the record or on. I am transparent about how hard it is sometimes: stressful for me, hard on my husband, and unfair to my three girls when I am traveling or working long hours. But I encourage women that they can find their way and their leadership makes a difference. We also need to provide flexibility in assignments, travel requirements, and office schedules.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would you tell her?
ASR: Don’t be so anxious about wanting more – more intellectual stimulation, more travel, more experiences, more friends, more kids, more love, more money, more physical fitness. Pace yourself. You’ll get all that you need, just not all at the same time. So rejoice with what you have, just keep an eye out for that next aspiration.
How can the supply chain industry encourage more women to make it their long-term careers?
ASR: First, inspire women to be a part of the solution by highlighting the multi-faceted challenges facing the supply chain industry – from warehousing, transportation, automation, robotics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, omnichannel retail, environmental sustainability, social responsibilities, ethical business practices to change management – all exciting areas for career growth as well as opportunities to help build a better society.
Second, support women to stay in the industry by providing family-friendly policies including childcare, elderly care, training, proactive career planning and flexible work arrangements.
If you could wave a wand & change one thing for the next generation of female leaders, what would it be?
HM: I would make it possible for moms to have the option to go back to work and keep climbing without concern for their child’s well-being or a financial burden.
ASR: When it comes to that next promotion or career change, be “gender blind” and stop second-guessing yourself. You can do it.
Imagine a world where shoppers can walk into a clothing store, scan the price tag on a dress, and complete payment on the spot. Imagine a world where virtual stylists allow shoppers to seamlessly pay by link, or a world where instore shoppers collecting their online orders aren’t just handed a package but are greeted with personalised recommendations to complement their purchase.
This world isn’t so far off, according to Manhattan Associates Solutions Executive Joe Kamara. “We’ve built a unified platform that brings the best of traditional Point of Sale (POS), order management and store operations together so you can orchestrate these different flows.”
In conversation with Natalie Berg, Retail Analyst and Founder of NBK Retail, Kamara said that the next generation POS is being accelerated by the pandemic-driven shift to digital. While in crisis mode last year, retailers quickly pivoted to ensure that stores could continue serving customers via click & collect and kerbside pickup, while simultaneously processing online returns instore. Kamara believes that this behaviour will outlast the pandemic, reinforcing the need for retailers to ensure they are equipped with the right tools to seamlessly serve the customer across multiple touchpoints.
Considering POS as part of the customer experience journey
For many retailers around the globe, this is becoming basic hygiene. Even in the years leading up to the pandemic, the role of POS was being drastically redefined as the industry adapted for the digital era.
Pre-purchase – traditionally, retailers took a store-only view of the customer and the sharing of data and shopper preferences across channels was limited. Today, there is an enterprise view of the customer, and retailers have full visibility into purchase history as well as sharing of digital data.
Purchase– when it came to out-of-stocks, the experience used to be “filled with roadblocks and friction”, according to Kamara. Today, however, thanks to retailers’ endless aisle capabilities, shoppers can make a single purchase for items that are available both in and out of the store.
Post-purchase – it’s difficult to cast our minds back to a time when stores would not accept online returns, given the ease and proliferation of choice today when it comes to returning goods purchased online.
The industry has come a long way to meet the needs of the 21st century shopper who wants to shop on their terms, irrespective of device or channel used. But, as we witness a post-pandemic acceleration in the convergence of physical and digital retail, it’s imperative that retailers continue to move the dial, removing any remaining friction points from the instore experience. This is no time for complacency.
For example, if we go back to the perennial problem of out-of-stocks, it’s hard to believe that even in this day and age, only a small minority of retailers are capable of offering in-store purchasing from another store’s inventory. From a customer experience perspective, this feels entirely unacceptable given the industry’s broader efforts to digitize the physical store. Not only do retailers risk losing the sale but it can be detrimental to brand loyalty in the long-term too.
In order to meet customers’ supercharged expectations, retailers must adopt a sell/fulfil/engage anywhere mentality. However, when it comes to future-ready POS implementation, retailers often make three common mistakes, according to Kamara:
Adopting a store-only plan, damaging future agility
Minimal investment in change (e.g. limited budget for user training; limited project communication plan)
Selecting a “proven” vendor with old technology
All too often, retail organisations are still thinking in silos. Instead, Kamara recommends that retailers develop a unified commerce roadmap (POS + order management), make a clear plan for organisational change and select the right vendor capable of delivering on the long-term.
You can find out more about Manhattan Associates’ POS solutions here.