This article was first published in the Winter 2014 issue of Speak
“A happy store leads to happy customers; it’s the cardinal rule of retail,” says Sahir Anand, vice president of research and principal analyst at EKN Research. The question is, what constitutes a happy store? According to Anand, a happy store is one in which employees are engaged with the brand and the products, and one in which customers receive a high quality service. However, research from Gallup suggests that only 13% of employees in 142 countries are currently emotionally invested in their jobs, while the rest remain dissatisfied and disengaged.
To empower employees and increase their productivity, many retailers are turning to digital innovations, such as smart shelves, which display promotions; sensors that detect customer movement; self-service kiosks; content management and collaboration solutions; and handheld mobile devices for in-store staff.
Anand believes that digital interactions have the potential to significantly improve the in-store experience for both employees and customers, but often retailers rush to deploy the latest digital innovations without fully considering whether the technology will improve operational efficiency.
“Store associates will only engage with new technology if they are able to understand how it will benefit them on a daily basis and if they are fully trained to ensure they are proficient in its use,” he explains. “Many store associates are used to manual systems and are unable to adapt as quickly when new devices are introduced. If a retailer simply hands these employees a new device without training them, they will not be able appreciate its benefits, making them more likely to revert back to the original manual processes.”
Instead, he notes, employee engagement with technology must stem from the management teams working to understand how these digital tools can improve processes. “Some of the world’s best retailers view their employees as customers – just as the in-store experience needs to be exciting for customers, it needs to be equally engaging for employees,” Anand explains. “It’s not enough just to provide employees with technology, they must also be incentivised to use it through gamification exercises, customer engagement challenges, and regular competitions that test the employees’ skills with the devices, or their product knowledge.”
One way retailers are engaging employees and ensuring high performance is by empowering them with data-rich mobile apps that deliver real-time access to the information they need when handling customer enquiries. Digital workplace capabilities, such as Avanade’s Microsoft Windows 8-based Assisted Selling app provide store associates with easy access to a range of product and related data, which transforms how they engage with both the products they are selling and the customers.
“Often, when a customer asks a question, store associates need to look up the answer using a desktop PC at the cashier desk because they don’t know much about the individual products,” says Steve Palmer, Avanade’s senior vice president for data and analytics. “Usually the store associate will be stopped by several other people on their way to the PC, which delays their return and leaves the customer standing by the shelf for a prolonged period of time. Usually, the customer then loses patience and buys the product from a competing store. In today’s connected world, all it takes is a tweet and bad reviews to damage a store’s reputation. In addition the delay causes the associate to lose a sale (and possibly commission) and wastes valuable time.”
According to Palmer, if this recurs over time, the employee becomes demotivated. He argues that by providing store associates with access to smart technology or assisted selling applications on mobile devices, retailers can enrich the customer experience, while instilling their employees with the confidence to answer enquiries on the spot and help customers make the right buying decisions.
“Imagine if store associates could use a mobile device to access more information at the point of engagement with the customer – not only would they be able to expertly respond to questions by providing product reviews or technical specifications, they would be more likely to become invested in the products,” says Palmer. “For example, if a customer picked up a pair of jeans, the store associate could use a mobile device to find and suggest other items by the same designer, or refer to the customer’s wish list and recent purchase history to make further product recommendations.”
Today, many of these mobile devices provide store associates with much more than product information. When combined with employee portals, they also give sales associates access to company-wide knowledge sharing platform, unified communications technologies, sales dashboards, calendars, task management solutions, training schedules and news updates.
“In the past, the standard paper-based processes and a one-size-fits-all communication approach was used to inform employees about products and promotions, or share other vital updates,” explains Fabio Chiodini, senior director of consumer products and retail at Avanade. “This often led to ineffective communication between employees, resulting in deviation from company policies and a lack of engagement with the brand and its products.”
According to Chiodini, to develop effective sales associates, retailers have begun to adopt real-time and contextual collaboration tools that connect employees to colleagues within their store, other stores and offices, and corporate headquarters. “Many retailers are now adopting consolidated employee portals, which provide a central place for store associates to access all of the information and tools they need to complete their daily tasks, regardless of their location,” says Chiodini, highlighting that portals also serve as a channel to communicate the corporate headquarters’ core strategies. “This is particularly beneficial for retailers that have stores in multiple locations because it ensures that employees can access company-wide updates about promotions or products, as well as localised information about each individual store, such as stock levels or delivery dates. Plus, the portals can be accessed via in-store kiosks and mobile devices, allowing employees to provide a more informed service to customers.”
In addition, collaboration technologies are now commonly adopted to share updates, assign tasks and manage, allowing store managers to optimise operations. Chiodini notes: “A growing number of sales assistants are also using real-time collaboration tools to check the availability of products in other stores if a customer has requested an item that is currently out of stock, or if a shipment has been delayed.”
While Chiodini highlights the benefits of employees being able to access corporate information, Palmer argues that employee engagement and productivity can also be boosted by providing associates with basic personal analytics to help them prioritise their tasks.
“Most people work because they need the money, so anything a retailer can do to help employees optimise their time at work and understand how their job is benefiting them will improve engagement levels,” agrees Palmer. “Even something as simple as providing employees with access to basic personal records, such as time sheets or past sales records, boosts motivation and engagement because they can regularly review their performance levels, working hours and pay to ensure they are making the most of their time at work.”
In addition to enabling employees to track their individual performance, analytics and data visualisation capabilities can be integrated with mobile devices and in-store sensors to deliver data and real-time insights regarding activity within the shop to store managers in an easily accessible format. This enables them to leverage their resources more effectively, ensure the workload is split evenly between their team members and serve customers more efficiently.
Avanade Touch Analytics, a touch-optimised solution available on platforms such as Windows 8 and Windows Phone, leverages data from these in-store sensors and other sources to provide retailers with a wealth of data about the activity within a store. This includes the changing levels of customer traffic throughout the day, how many shoppers have selected a promotional product from a certain aisle, or even the average time it takes for a store associate to approach customers and deal with queries.
“Sensors, the internet of things, and data visualisation and analytics can play a key role in helping the manager to optimise their available resources and guarantee that customers are served quickly, while ensuring staff remain engaged throughout the day,” Palmer says. “Avanade Touch Analytics combines data from in-store sensors and other sources to provide a real-time, interactive, 3D map of the store that uses visual cues – such as colours or symbols – to alert employees to activity within the store and enable them to deal with the situation proactively.”
Palmer explains that the tool is designed to enable managers to proactively lead their teams and also better serve customers by directing associates to the areas of the store where they will have the highest impact on customers. “For example, if the manager’s tablet was to display a flashing red light over the electronics department, that would indicate that there has been a sudden influx of customers, so they can send unoccupied employees from the clothing department to provide support,” he says. “Similarly, if the manager were to press on the blue bubble over shelf five, they would be alerted to the fact that the ‘special offer’ items on the shelf had been selected by at least 15 customers every hour, enabling them to reposition an associate to ensure the stock is replenished to meet demand.”
The ability to manage employees in this way using a handheld device increases the manager’s understanding of the team, the store and its customers. Chiodini says: “If you visit a retail store where the employees are able to access new devices and technologies, and collaborate with their colleagues via a central portal, they often have a greater understanding of the company, its products and the role they are expected to fulfil,” he says. “These employees often have a greater appreciation of their working environment and are therefore more motivated to perform to a higher standard, become more involved in their role and strive to create a better customer experience.”
And as the use of technology continues to rise in everyday life, more retailers will need to leverage it to ensure they continue to attract and retain engaged employees. “The younger generation has grown up to expect instant access to technology and will be looking to work in stores where they can use handheld devices to instantly access product and company data, and collaborate with colleagues more easily,” says Palmer. “The more compelling a retailer’s employee experience is, the easier it will be to recruit staff who are willing to engage with their customers and promote the brand.”
“It’s important to remember that people don’t join the retail industry because they like stacking shelves; they join because they like to interact with customers,” Palmer concludes. “Any technology that can help store managers or associates to serve customers in a better, faster and more personalised manner will boost employee engagement and productivity.”