Retail Workforce Productivity: There's an App for That

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Retail Workforce Productivity: There's an App for That

By Kevin Swanwick, Senior Director, Retail Solutions, Manhattan Associates - 12/06/2016
Brick-and-mortar retailing has always been a tough game, but today retailers are facing challenges never seen before. The problems posed by these new challenges are compounded by the speed at which they arrive. A number of factors have converged to create a perfect storm for chain store retailers, examples and the closing of one hundred Macy's stores is simply one recent but a dramatic bellwether of an ongoing trend. As always, there is a complex picture to be deconstructed, but certain trends – ones that can be dealt with – are of urgent interest to the surviving flock of store merchants.

So where do mobile applications fit into this picture? We should proceed with the kind of caution that looks carefully forward, not backward. I am old enough to remember hearing a colleague once say, in all seriousness, “This Internet thing…I don't know, there's a lot of hype. You really think it's going to change the world?”

So let's get to mobile.  Where does it fit into this picture?

With 2.2 million consumer apps for Android and 2 million apps in the App Store, the full effects of mobile applications on productivity have yet to be measured completely. One thing is clear: time is being saved in our daily lives – at work and at play – in ways that we couldn't have imagined just a few years ago. When it comes to brick and mortar retailing, productivity is one variable that will measure who survives and who perishes. While both labor and rent costs are increasing for chain store retailers, so are consumer expectations for product availability, knowledge and fast service. This is not simply the remit of Uber-conditioned Millennials, but the public at large. Mobile devices have become the primary source of non-commercial personal computing.

At present, no retailers I know have decided to increase their labor cost by adding more staff to their stores. They can't. Yet they face the problem of crucially relying upon store associates to meet these new challenges. But today these same people do more, not less, work than they did a few years ago.

At the same time, the Amazon effect is palpable everywhere. You know the story: you need to be omnicommerce enabled to compete effectively, and in order to do that, your stores have to be part of your fulfillment pool. This means having accurate inventory and robust execution systems. It also means adding mission critical labor inputs to the store labor schedule. But without a commensurate increase in profitable sales, how can this be accomplished?

Since stores serve multiple purposes – promoting the brand, selling merchandise, acquiring new customers and expanding geographic presence – they are often unwieldy and erratically busy places. They are subject to often-unpredictable factors that either drive or suppress foot traffic. In a store, there is the steady stream of planned work, and then there is the realization of consumer demand, appearing at the doorstep, ready or not. Add to this new labor demands placed on associates who have to accomplish more work in the same hours and we have what looks like a conundrum. Or do we?

If we can check traffic, reserve a table, call a cab and order medication with our phones, we can certainly go to work in a store and use mobile applications that look and act like those we already rely upon in our personal lives. What is needed is consistency and sustainability given the number of upstream systems present in most retailing organizations.

One mobile application suite, built with the same technology and foundational system, is easier to deploy, use, upgrade and train staff with. Deploying multiple mobile, bolt-on applications to the store environment poses a number of problems, not the least of which is managing roadmaps and integration. The use of mobile applications within retail stores is no longer a novelty, but where they are targeted is critical. And how they are deployed really matters.

When we can reduce the time it takes to perform price verification and mark downs, receiving and transfers, presenting extended aisle inventory to a customer, accessing their loyalty points, making recommendations from their wish lists and preferences (or simply their purchase history) or fulfilling ship orders, we have collapsed time in the most meaningful and quantitatively verifiable terms. We've also helped to optimize customer service by keeping associates in close proximity to customers.

As we move into the future, it is important to recognize that effective store applications won't be offered as two different kinds - terrestrial or mobile – but rather as one homogenous platform that allows merchants to make business decisions about which parts of the job should be performed on mobile or fixed devices. This frees store operators up so that they can assess workloads and decide when and where to deploy mobile applications. Factors such as store layouts, seasonal variations and stock intensive labor are always in motion. Retailers need to be able to make these decisions as business people, not technologists.

When we cumulatively assess the time savings for block-and-tackle tasks such as store inventory management and price verification and then add tools like mobile, digitally based recommendations, upselling coordinates or saving the sale with a ship-to-home service, we find both time reductions and new sales at significant orders of magnitude.

When the number of labor-intensive events and the number of stores multiplies these, we begin to see some real gains in productivity as well as upsides with that saved sale. At the same time, these productivity gains mean more time on the floor, working with the customer. One merchant, referring to her store associates, told me flat out, “We need to get them out from behind the counter and onto the floor, and we need to keep them there.” Accomplishing this without the use of mobile applications is no longer possible.

In the store of the near future, all applications will have to operate with one version of software, regardless of how they are deployed. Which kind of device the application deploys on must be a decision made by experts who live and breathe store operations every day. As online catalog access and inventory control improves at surviving retailers, so must the productivity of the stores. And that means people.  Helping associates become dramatically more productive is no longer a nice-to-have; it is table stakes.

Kevin Swanwick is senior director, retail solutions at Manhattan Associates, a provider of retail software solutions.