Microsoft is empowering the retail workforce

Abid Chaudhry explains how technologies like Microsoft Azure, Teams and Dynamics 365 are enabling retailers to operate safely and serve customers effectively during the Covid-19 pandemic

Rebecca Gibson
Rebecca Gibson
By Rebecca Gibson on 06 November 2020
Microsoft is empowering the retail workforce

Every week, the Sri Lanka Tea Board and Ceylon Tea Traders Association host the Colombo Tea Auction, welcoming hundreds of buyers and sellers of tea. However, the Covid-19 pandemic forced the organisations to close the auction house doors in late March, putting the jobs of almost two million people who are involved in growing, producing and exporting tea in Sri Lanka at risk. To ensure the country’s multimillion-dollar tea industry continues to thrive, the Sri Lanka Tea Board worked with Cicra Solutions to quickly develop and deploy a virtual auction solution where all buying and selling is conducted securely via the Microsoft Azure cloud platform. 

Sri Lanka Tea Board is just one of many organisations that has harnessed the power of technology to transform the way its employees work during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“One of the most striking transformations we have seen taking place with both front-line and back-of-house retail workers has been the rapid adoption of technology as a means to stay safe and secure while staying open for business,” says Abid Chaudhry, cross-industry and devices product marketing manager for Microsoft 365 at Microsoft. “Retailers have changed how their businesses work, reinventing various routine processes that were previously to be carried out on paper or in person. This includes everything from digitising their employees’ clock-in/clock-out procedures to engaging with their customers via the web or mobile apps, and implementing digital tools to aid the management of stores.”

For example, when mobile and wireless communications provider T-Mobile was forced to temporarily shut around 80 per cent of its US stores in March, it used Microsoft Power Apps to develop a mobile app to manage staff rosters in real time. Employees submit their availability for shifts via the app, which then uses Power BI to provide district managers with detailed dashboards showing where employees are working, and which stores need extra resources to continue serving customers efficiently.   

Other retailers have implemented Microsoft Teams to enable their employees to communicate and collaborate with their colleagues, external partners and customers. For example, Chip Bergh, CEO of US-based clothing company Levi Strauss, uses Teams to host daily meetings with his leadership team, as well as to hold bi-weekly ‘Chips & Beer’ events with employees. Meanwhile, Italy’s Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona winery has adopted the platform to host virtual meetings and wine tastings with distributors, critics and consumers worldwide.

“Retailers are equipping their employees with the tools and resources they need to be able to continue working productively – whether they are working in store or at home,” says Chaudhry. “We expect to see the tools of the trade evolving. For instance, we expect that retailers will place always-on, connected devices in the hands of all their employees, rather than just information workers like they did pre-pandemic.”

According to Chaudhry, platforms such as Microsoft Dynamics 365 have been particularly popular with retailers looking to optimise their online sales experience and personalise customer engagements. 

“Solutions like those offered by Dynamics 365 Customer Service, Commerce, Supply Chain Management, HR and Finance are designed to be flexible and work with the enterprise resource planning strategy that retailers implemented before, during and after the immediate effects of Covid-19,” explains Chaudhry. “Dynamics 365 Commerce in particular enables retailers to engage with customers across various channels – giving customers the option to purchase when, how and where they want – via any device.”    

Technology from Microsoft and its extensive network of partners has also helped retailers to rapidly roll out new customer services, such as online ordering, home delivery, click and collect, and contactless payments. 

Sporting goods retailer Decathlon, for example, has implemented MishiPay’s Scan & Go mobile self-checkout solution at 81 stores in Germany. Now, shoppers scan and pay for products via their smartphone, minimising the need for them to interact with cashiers and POS devices. The solution also frees up employees to assist with value-added tasks elsewhere in the store.

“We expect many of these new services are likely to become long-term or permanent,” says Chaudhry. “Retailers will have to adjust their operational models to keep pace with customers’ evolving needs, preferences and behaviours.”

While some retailers are making small changes to their business models, others are completely reinventing their operational strategies. Microsoft, for example, will permanently close all its physical Microsoft Stores and focus on serving customers via its digital storefronts, which include Microsoft.com and stores on Xbox and Windows. 

According to Chaudhry, the move is partly because Microsoft’s online sales have grown rapidly as it has expanded its digital product portfolio over the past few years. In addition, the teams from the Microsoft Stores have successfully helped hundreds of thousands of small businesses, enterprises and education customers via virtual training, workshops and camps since they began working remotely in late March. 

“The way Microsoft has approached our retail presence has proven to be successful beyond any physical location for us,” explains Chaudhry. “We’ve been able to build upon our online retail strategy over the past several years and in doing so, have been able to hone our craft when it comes to providing top-notch experiences online. We plan to do more of the same in future. All our retail store employees will be offered the opportunity to be reskilled and move into other key positions, where they will provide customer service, training and support – either from our corporate offices or remotely.”  

All the changes in the retail landscape in recent months make it difficult to predict what the future shopping experience will look like for customers and employees. 

“We anticipate that the situation will continue to evolve for a long time,” says Chaudhry. “Whatever happens, Microsoft and our partners will remain dedicated to developing the innovative tools, technologies and other resources front-line retail employees need to work efficiently and safely, and deliver exceptional customer services and experiences.” 

Partner perspectives
We ask a selection of key Microsoft partners how they are helping retailers to work more productively and better serve customers. Below are extracts from their responses, which you can read in full from page 168 of the digital edition of the Autumn 2020 issue of The Record.

Hedgie Bartol, business development lead at Axis Communications, says: “With new terminology such as social distancing taking over our vernacular, we are rising up to meet the needs of retailers in the new normal.”

Sam Shopland, head of European B2B alliances at Samsung Europe, says: “Samsung continually works with Microsoft to ensure that users benefit from the best possible Microsoft experiences on our devices.”

Neil Pickering, industry and customer insights manager at UKG (Ultimate Kronos Group), says: “Retail employees can leverage the collaboration between UKG Dimensions and Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Teams that brings together people, conversations and content, so collaboration can be achieved.”

David Ciancio, global head of grocery at dunnhumby, says: “dunnhumby’s customer data isnights are a vital and powerful tool, which have been increasingly relied upon by our global retail partners to support their business functions during the pandemic.”

This article was originally published in the Autumn 2020 issue of The Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.

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