With 2017 winding down, many apparel retailers are reflecting on the successes or failures of the past year and – perhaps more importantly – prepping for the year ahead. In-store and HR technologies for retailers have come a long way this past year and, of course, these innovations are expected to evolve further in 2018. What types of technologies should apparel retailers look out for next year, and how can they prepare now?
Mike Zorn, vice president of Workplace Strategy at WorkJam, discusses the main technology trends retailers saw last year, how they might expand, and the industry-wide forces behind these innovations.
In your opinion, what were the three biggest tech innovations for apparel retailers in 2017?
On a broad scale, the biggest technological innovations in HR for retailers were the use of predictive analytics, employee self-service, and the expanded use of chatbots for call center administration. With tightening budgets and a narrowing talent pool, HR leaders at retail organizations have been incorporating more technology into recruiting and retaining employees.
From an in-store perspective, mobile and wearable technology began to take off. Enterprise retail wearable shipments hit 2 million in 2017, and experts predict this to reach nearly 10 million shipments by 2022. Some examples of this in-store mobile technology include smartwatches, headsets, wearable scanners, and even smart glasses.
The increase of in-store technology we’ve seen in the past year is part of a broader strategy to attract customers to physical stores. Brick-and-mortar retailers are using technology as a differentiator to improve the customer experience and stand out from e-commerce giants. Many stores are seeing this pay off, and we’ll likely have a better idea of where this is headed in the coming year.
How do you see these technologies further evolving in 2018?
Retailers in the apparel industry are in the midst of a war for talent, and this will only increase in 2018. Store owners will have to make careful calculated decisions to align their budgets; luckily, technology can help them cut costs and increase efficiency. The expansion of predictive analytics will allow for smarter decisions based on the machine analysis of the hundreds of data points captured by HR professionals. Self-service tools and chatbots will expand in 2018 to provide on-demand service to the emerging workforce and will streamline many administrative HR tasks. Benefits paperwork, employee profiles, and even compensation can be managed with self-service tools and chatbots rather than face-to-face exchanges.
What do you consider the “underdog tech” for retailers – something that wasn’t widely popular in 2017, but could likely see a boom next year?
With the apparel industry’s focus on improving customer service (and engaging its workforce in the process), the underdog technology for retail will likely be the expansion of machine learning in the leadership and development space. For brick-and-mortar stores, employees are no longer simply there to complete transactions and stock shelves; their role now extends to educating customers and serving as brand ambassadors as part of a larger effort to differentiate from e-commerce competitors.
As a result, employees in the apparel industry will require more training when it comes to brand messaging. In the coming year, we will see more digital training classes presented in real time. Management will consistently distribute training modules to associates based on their performance as determined by predictive analytics. These training modules will also be more effective, as they will be able to pinpoint areas for growth and desired behaviors for certain associates based on department or skill level. To do so, many apparel stores might deploy digital workplace platforms as a medium to distribute segmented training modules and assessments to frontline associates’ mobile devices.
Conversely, is there a type of retail technology that you think could fizzle out in 2018? If so, what could this be replaced with?
I’m not sure it will fizzle completely or if retailers will just have to restructure it, but the annual engagement survey will likely evolve into more of a frequent, actionable and real-time process than it is today. Millions of dollars are being spent in the engagement survey business, much of it administered online. Yet the needle on engagement has not moved significantly as a result.
While apparel stores will always need to engage their customer-facing associates (as the benefits of doing so have been well-proven), the current process of evaluating employee satisfaction needs a digital overhaul. Instead of quarterly or yearly employee surveys (which might even be administered via paper and pencil), retailers will turn to micro surveys and quick polls to evaluate metrics like how satisfied associates are in their job, where they see areas for improvement and what feedback they’re getting from customers. When deployed through digital workplace platforms, management will be better able to collect and analyze this data; in the long run, this will help them predict metrics like employee turnover and better assess customer demand.
How are brick-and-mortar retailers leveraging technology to remain competitive against e-commerce giants?
In the apparel industry, the success of a brick-and-mortar store is all about putting a positive workforce on the floor and relaying a consistent brand message. Together, having the right people doing the right things at the right time and in the right place will cultivate a customer experience that e-commerce retailers cannot. In the coming year, shopping will remain an experiential social event that can only be provided by brick-and-mortar retailers.
Mike Zorn is the VP of workplace strategy for WorkJam. In his role, he works with client companies to develop strategies, using the WorkJam Digital Workplace, to empower and engage their hourly workforce. Prior to joining WorkJam, Mike spent more than 30 years with Macy's Inc., and the past 15 years as their senior vice president of associate and Labor Relations. His responsibilities included culture and employee engagement development, internal branding and communications, employee and labor relations strategy for the Macy's enterprise.