Frontline employees have to wear many hats. They may be an empathetic, knowledgeable consultant or influencer helping customers, gaining trust, and building relationships. But in a post-COVID world, they may also be an ambassador for social distancing and safety and health protocols while building customer confidence to return to stores.
For retailers, the basics are still important: hire, retain, and grow talent by showing employees that you understand them, support them. and want them to succeed and grow in their career and life aspirations. In short, in the current environment, retailers must commit to making frontline employees feel safe and engaged.
Employees will also need updated health and safety training on their responsibilities in terms of sanitizing the retail space and protocols for customer interactions, such as social distancing and mask requirements. Just as importantly, they may also be monitoring customers’ compliance with corporate-stated health and safety guidelines, which is an entirely new accountability. Employees will need training on how best to approach customers who are not wearing masks, etc., and how to handle situations if shoppers do get contentious.
RIS: What technologies will be critical for the frontline retail employees and stores of the future?
Krishnanji: To facilitate a safe return to work, NTT DATA has developed a suite of Back to Business solutions that leverage the IoT, automation, advanced data analytics, and mobile technologies. Consider Lisa, a frontline stocker/picker who works at a dark retail store that serves as a fulfillment center for click-and-collect and home delivery:
- Sensors check for temperature and mask compliance when Lisa starts her shift.
- She completes a secure form on her mobile device, noting and tracking any symptoms.
- She wears a Bluetooth-enabled wristband or tag that enables contact tracing, which tracks whom she meets during the shift.
- Protocols are in place around alerting, employee communication, and cleaning and sanitization, while protecting Lisa’s privacy.
- Lisa is trained to be an “ambassador” who builds confidence with customers and receives regular communications around policy updates and training through online channels.
In this way, technology can help employees feel safe while also empowering them to make customers feel safe. The solution has a positive impact on revenue, ensures compliance, and reduces risks for retailers.
Creating a safe, quick, and easy shopping experience will be key in the new normal. The ability to connect consumers with expert associates through mobile technologies, while empowering associates with access to customer histories and preferences as well as inventory information, will enable them to delight customers and build trust.
Another area where intelligent automation can drive efficiency and lower costs is the use of robots for real-time inventory management processes in stores and distribution centers. As consumers use click-and-collect to reduce exposure to COVID, it has become especially important for retailers to improve both the accuracy of product availability data in stores and order-picking performance while reducing errors and returns through a combination of automation and mobile tools for stockers and pickers. A combination of IoT technologies such as RFID, smart shelves, mobile robots, and drones, combined with cognitive analytics that leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning, can provide actionable insights to store managers to monitor the health of the entire store operations in near real time. Employee utilization, productivity, and satisfaction can be improved through flexible staffing models and smart shift management. Ultimately, such solutions help set the platform to enable a “digital twin” of store and supply chain operations. NTT DATA is helping retailers and manufacturers in this regard by conducting proof of concepts/pilots with such robotics and “digital twin” solutions.
The store of the future will require a flexible and dynamic collaboration of human and virtual workforces. This will necessitate a mind shift from “robots versus humans” to “robots empowering humans” by focusing on the value that humans bring to the table. Self-checkout is a great example of this; humans can handle more complex checkout processes and exceptions while automation handles quick, smaller transactions.
RIS: With so much change happening in the retail industry, what tangible steps can retailers take to prepare for the future?
Keller and Krishnanji: While we have been focusing primarily on customer-facing employees, all employees in a retail business are affected by COVID-19. They may be finding it challenging to work from home, or they may be uncomfortable about returning to the office, store, or distribution center. The key is to put employees, whether frontline or corporate, at the center of your decision-making. An employee experience assessment can help you develop a workplace strategy by identifying:
- How working from home and store or DC has impacted employee productivity
- What technologies can improve collaboration and productivity
- How policies need to change
- Why employees may desire a return to an office or store
- Employees’ comfort in returning to an office or store
- What meaningful KPIs are needed
Outcomes of an employee experience assessment help to build a phased IT strategy aligned to the store models and customer needs, addressing:
- Building resilience into operations
- Enabling a full digital business ecosystem
- Modernizing store operations and omnichannel design
- Enabling a flexible, dynamic human and virtual workforce through AI and automation
- Addressing foundational requirements such as cloud and network security and dynamic workplace services while reducing technical debt
Resiliency is about keeping retail operations uninterrupted and agile. It is also important for retailers to think about enabling individual employees to be resilient at all levels, in physical, mental, emotional and job skills, while helping them connect to a higher motivational cause. The outcomes of an employee experience assessment can help retailers be more agile and think out of the box about workforce flexibility.
- Turn ingenuity into innovation with NTT DATA’s Pandemic Response Portfolio
- Drive digital to rapidly adapt to changing consumer requirements with our Smart Retail and Consumer Packaged Goods industry services
- Focus on the people who matter with our Customer Experience services