Paid partnership with Zebra Technologies
I recently had the pleasure to sit down with Mark Thomson, Retail Industry Director, EMEA at Zebra Technologies. In this interview, we discuss the benefits of automation, importance of associate experience and why the time has finally come for RFID.
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.