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07/28/2022

How Technology Can Help Small Retailers Stay Fully Operational With Fewer Associates

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Implementing technology in retail.

Facing unprecedented and challenging market disruptions, forward-thinking small business owners are turning to technology to maximize productivity and profits. What’s more, investments in the right technology can elevate the overall shopper experience, even when there is less staff on hand.

Staffing Shortages Can Have a Greater Impact on Small Businesses

The role of the physical store is evolving, but it is still critical to the customer experience. According to NRF data, 80% of shopping still happens in stores, yet only six-in-10 shoppers are satisfied with how well-equipped associates are to help them find items, according to shopper feedback in Zebra’s latest Global Shopper Study

Only 70% are happy with the availability of staff in the stores or the level of information and help staff provides. That’s concerning considering how significantly labor shortages continue to impact retailers. Whether the workforce is limited due to illness or staff departures, the impact of fewer associates on store floors and back rooms can have adverse effects across a business, especially when technology is not being used to augment headcount or the customer experience.

For a large retailer, the consequences of being short staffed may be minimal, limited to shifting employees from the backroom to front of the store for a few hours. For small businesses, the impact can be devastating and potentially hurt their bottom line, as a few employee call outs may result in zero staff availability — and a full store closure — for an entire day. 

When met with the “Be Back Tomorrow” sign, customers shop elsewhere, potentially challenging their long-term loyalty. That’s why forward-thinking small retailers should be making larger investments in technology that makes it easier to manage staff schedules and rebalance workloads when teams are lean and foot traffic is high. 

Integrating solutions that make customers more self-sufficient in the store can also be highly valuable when there’s only one or two associates available to work each shift. 

Streamline Operations Between the Back and Front of the Store 

There is often little delineation between the front of store and backroom operations in a small retail business. The right technology can help ensure there is no disconnect between the two functions and increase efficiency when moving physical items between the front and back of the store. 

Equipping associates with enterprise-class mobile devices can add valuable mobility and transparency to the inventory management process. This technology gives store associates on the sales floor insight into what products are available or scheduled for arrival so they can better support customers and ensure they’re available to receive and replenish items when trucks arrive. 

[Related: The Great Acceptance: Rebuilding Workforce Ideals to Come Back Stronger]

It also makes the overall inventory management process less time-consuming and more accurate than processes of the past, which relied on paper and pen to track item locations, sales and more.

Offer Mobile Checkout and More 

Small businesses can add automation and efficiency to inventory management, sales, and more by embracing retail-ready technology solutions such as self-serve kiosks or checkout lanes, rugged tablets with added point-of-sale (POS) modules or handheld mobile computers with built-in barcode scanners and accessorized with radio frequency identification (RFID) sleds.

Mobile technology enables a convenient and seamless customer experience, giving employees more tools to assist shoppers in the moment, wherever they are. It also helps free store associates to deliver more of the high-touch customer service that differentiates many small businesses from their big box or online competitors. 

For instance, with product knowledge in the palm of their hand, associates can provide a better experience by answering questions thoroughly and offer more information about a product without leaving the customer’s side to check a computer or ask a colleague in the back. When an associate isn’t available, a kiosk can provide information about inventory styling, sizing, and selection. They can even be set up to support online ordering while in store, notify an associate of their arrival for order pickup, or process returns.  

Kiosks can also serve as a POS to process transactions more efficiently, while rugged tablets and handheld computers can support associate-managed mobile POS. This can help avoid a situation where a single employee is stuck behind a register while multiple customers in the store need attention. 

Employees calling out sick does not have to mean resorting to options like closing the store for the day. Retail-ready technology helps maximize the power of a single associate to meet customer service expectations no matter the disruption. In addition, it can help speed up onboarding and upskilling, making specific skills easier to learn or transfer on the spot if a designated employee is unexpectedly out sick or unavailable. 

Accommodating Your Associates’ Needs

Of course, the best approach to overcoming staffing shortages is to equip these mobile devices with software that helps automate staff scheduling or allows employees to automatically request a replacement when they can’t make a shift. This will make it less likely that only a single employee will be in the store at any point in time. 

Plus, technology adoption can help engage and retain a younger workforce, which is the ultimate long-term solution to this current labor problem. Millennials will soon make up about 75% of front-line workers, while Generation Z, born between the late 1990s and early 2010s, is projected to make up 30% of the workforce by 2030. 

Heading into the future, meeting the demands of younger workers for on-the-job technology will also be crucial for improving operations and maintaining a steady and devoted workforce. 

Fortunately, for most small businesses, retail-ready technologies have become more accessible than ever before. There are enterprise-grade devices built for small businesses’ needs and budgets, as well as cloud-based services that make both the hardware and software easy and affordable to deploy and manage. 

When you consider the cost of a store being closed a whole day or losing a few customer sales throughout the day due to staff inattention, the price of digitalizing store operations is nominal. Workers will be available and workflows manageable — two critical components of a successful retail business.

— Amanda Honig, Small and Medium-Sized Business Industry Lead, Zebra Technologies

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