Omnichannel business trends are driving retail organizations to increase their IT (information technology) investments as they seek to meet customer demand for faster delivery, better online services, and a more diverse shopping experience. Alongside the need for better technology to handle customer ordering, shipping, and inventory processes, organizations are finding that they can use technology to better manage the human side of the equation as well—especially in the brick-and-mortar store.
"[Employers] are asking their [in-store] associates to wear more and more hats," explains Steve Simmerman, senior director of sales for supply chain software developer JDA Software Group, describing the retail store as a "warehouse with a cash register" in which associates must perform distribution center-like tasks in addition to their traditional customer service-oriented responsibilities. Without the right technology in place, balancing those responsibilities is extremely difficult, he says.
The result is a growing focus on managing the "people" side of the retail store with technology solutions that improve productivity, make it easier for associates to do their jobs, and raise customer service levels.
"There are big investments going on at the retail store-level to better manage the store and its employees. I've not seen this kind of activity on the retail side from a technology perspective," adds Simmerman, pointing to store operations solutions, workforce management tools, and analytics as areas of growing interest. "Those retailers that are investing in [technology] solutions are way ahead of the curve, and they are using [them] to drive better operations and [promote] greater employee engagement and satisfaction."
SEIZING STORE OPERATIONS SOLUTIONS
Simmerman and others say retailers are showing increased interest in store operations solutions that utilize hardware and software to better manage the changing demands of the in-store associate—especially the ability to prioritize tasks and improve productivity. JDA's StoreOptimizer is one example. Built on the Google Cloud Platform, the software-as-a-service task engine continuously evaluates competing priorities and directs employees to finish the most important tasks at any given time.
Stock replenishment is a case in point. Having the right products on the shelves to meet shopper demand is becoming increasingly complex in an omnichannel environment, where retailers must accommodate "buy online, return in store" (BORIS), "buy online, pick up in store" (BOPIS), and ship-from-store preferences, for example. Solutions such as StoreOptimizer combine handheld hardware and a smartphone-like interface with software that connects to a company's inventory management system, alerting associates to in-demand items that need to be replenished on the floor. Associates receive an alert on their handheld device directing them to a precise location in the stockroom to retrieve a specific number of items, and then directing them to the location on the floor where those items must be replenished—all in real time. The process streamlines associates' work while improving on-shelf availability of products and reducing stockouts, driving increased customer satisfaction, Simmerman says.
Honeywell Safety and Productivity Solutions offers a similar store operations tool in its Connected Retail Solution, which combines software and hardware to deliver real-time information to in-store associates for inventory management, stock replenishment, click-and-collect ordering, and so forth. Beyond the benefits of greater productivity and improved service levels, such tools also boost employee engagement, helping associates feel more confident in their ability to serve customers, says Karen Bomber, the company's director of retail industry marketing.
"[With these technologies], you are empowering associates to know that without scanning a bar code or looking something up, they have the technology in their hands that will tell them where something is," which allows them to more easily—and more confidently—interact with customers, she explains.
EMBRACING WORKFORCE MANAGEMENT TOOLS
External factors are coming into play as well. Record unemployment levels are helping to raise interest in labor-related technology solutions as employers seek to "do more with less" and find candidates to fill open positions. Simmerman points to growing interest in workforce management solutions (WFM) that cater to the demands of the changing work force as one example. Such tools allow employers to create more accurate schedules and minimize staffing shortages or over-coverage, and they also put more power in the hands of associates. For instance, JDA's WFM for retailers includes mobile capabilities that allow associates to adjust their schedules, swap shifts, and request time off—all from their smartphones.
"More and more customers are moving to this type of capability to provide more flexible work schedules, making themselves more attractive to their current and future work force," Simmerman explains. "[In addition], these capabilities help off-load the tedium of these tasks for supervisors and managers—freeing them up to concentrate on running the business [and] coaching employees."
Retailers are also turning to analytics to address labor-related concerns, says Toby Brzoznowski, co-founder and chief strategy officer for supply chain technology developer Llamasoft, which provides software that allows companies to create digital models of their supply chains to test "what if?" scenarios for all aspects of business planning. Digital modeling can be a crucial tool in managing seasonal labor demands as well as for determining how new policies or processes may affect hiring, training, and other staffing concerns, he says. Using supply chain modeling software, companies can test scenarios based on increased throughput to determine how much additional staffing may be required, for instance. The software can help determine when to add a second or third shift, for example, or indicate how implementing next-day delivery might affect the need for labor across the entire retail organization.
"A lot of these things are interesting data and analytics problems," Brzoznowski says of the changing retail environment. "[Retailers] are using our software to find the balance—to find the right mix of labor and automation, for instance. They are testing different hypotheses."
As with other aspects of the evolving retail environment, much of what is changing can be traced back to e-commerce and omnichannel business trends. Brzoznowski and others argue that implementing the right technology solutions can go a long way toward making better decisions about how to react and respond to those trends.
"The changing dynamic of [adopting] more of an omnichannel or e-commerce strategy [is driving retailers] to offer more aggressive services to their customers. As a result, they have to leverage their physical operations—not just their warehouses, but also their retail stores and the people who are running them," he says, pointing to data, digital decision-making, and technology in general as an important piece of the puzzle. "[Organizations are] taking a step back and taking a data-driven approach to figuring out exactly what they can offer and what kind of services they can, sustainably, provide to customers."