This article was originally published in the Autumn 2019 issue of The Record. Subscribe for FREE here to get the next issues delivered directly to your inbox.
What do you remember about your most enjoyable in-store shopping experiences? For many people, the memory that stands out is of the friendly store associate who greeted them by name, answered all their questions knowledgably, helped them to locate their items and processed their payment quickly.
“Store associates are the voice and face of the brand – everything they do while a customer is in a store has an instant impact on whether the consumer will return to the brand in future,” says Greg Jones, director of business strategy for worldwide retail and consumer goods at Microsoft. “If a store associate is rude, unhelpful and bored, customers likely won’t return. However, if they’re well-informed and go above and beyond to deliver a seamless shopping experience, consumers are likely to return time and time again.”
If retailers want to ensure that their employees fall into the latter category, they must provide all the tools their staff need to complete their daily tasks and collaborate and communicate with everyone from their in-store team to head office. Employees also need to have instant access to customer, product and business-critical information at their fingertips.
“Using unified collaboration and communication platforms, the executive leadership team and store managers can quickly deliver the latest company news, important business insights, training, information about new stock and promotions, and more to everyone in the company at the same time,” says Jones. “Meanwhile, store associates can share feedback with managers about what displays are (or are not) working well, which products are most popular, what questions customers are asking frequently and so on. They can also share customer success stories and any ideas that they may have for new initiatives or best practices for enhancing the customer experience. Not only will this ensure that employees have the information they need to do their jobs, but it will also create a central platform for company-wide innovation.”
British fashion, homeware and grocery retailer Marks & Spencer, for example, has implemented Microsoft Teams to provide all 80,000 colleagues across its 1,035 UK stores with access to all the tools, data and people they need via one streamlined central platform.
“Store associates can easily chat with colleagues for guidance, check customer or product data instantly and quickly edit, share or consult important business documents on their smartphone while they’re on the shop floor,” says Jones. “Now, employees get the right information at the right time, which has made teams more efficient and productive. Meanwhile the dedicated customer channel where staff share customer experiences and other feedback has made everyone feel involved in the business.”
Other retailers are turning to artificial intelligence (AI), robotic process automation, machine learning and business intelligence tools to automate time-consuming manual tasks that are currently preventing store associates from providing value-added services to customers. One area that has been transformed by AI is stock and inventory.
“In the past, store associates would have to walk around the store and manually record stock levels for all the different products on sale, which was time consuming and open to human error,” says Jones. “If stock levels were low, associates would have to notify their manager who would then request new stock from the warehouse, all of which introduces delays in getting products into customers’ hands.
“Now, retailers can use AI to identify patterns in their sales data and combine it with contextual information about weather, socio-economic trends, geographical location and other factors to predict customer demand and create accurate hyper-local inventories for individual stores. This means that they know which products are most popular at particular times of the day, week or year and increase or decrease their stock orders accordingly. If an out-of-stock situation did occur, store associates now have the tools to quickly report this to everyone in the supply chain at once, which minimises replenishment times.”
Meanwhile, tools like Microsoft’s cloud-based Office 365 productivity suite can help retailers to plan their workforce more effectively and provide employees with greater flexibility. Handmade glass votive retailer glassybaby, for example, has implemented Office 365 to resolve the issues with creating rotas for its glassblowers and the staff operating its eight stores across three US states.
“Store managers can save between three and six hours a week when creating schedules, allowing them to devote their time to more important tasks, such as employee training and customer outreach,” comments Jones.
Shift changes are also easier to manage. Now, when a glassybaby employee needs to change shifts, they simply log into the Office 365 app from any device, post a request to their colleagues in the chat and, when someone agrees to the swap, ask the manager to approve it by tapping ‘ok’. The digital rota is then updated in real time for everyone to see. “It’s much quicker than the previous time-consuming processes, which involved manually contacting multiple people and amending paper rotas – and there are no more instances of staff inadvertently missing shifts because they hadn’t seen an e-mail or the updated schedule,” explains Jones. “Office 365 also functions as a personal assistant by sending staff automatic reminders about shifts and tasks, which means that they spend less time worrying about their schedule and more time focused on the customers.”
Empowering employees with this type of technology is one of Microsoft’s four key priorities for the retail sector.
“We’re working very closely with a large ecosystem of partners to retail-specific solutions on top of the Microsoft technology stack to improve the experience for staff at every level in the industry,” remarks Jones. “From Office 365 to Microsoft Teams, the Azure cloud platform and all the retail-specific Dynamics 365 offerings, our technology offers a solid foundation for the types of third-party solutions that will improve the employee experience across everything from project management to sales, marketing, human resources, operations and more.”
By equipping employees with the tools that Microsoft and its partners are developing, retailers will set themselves up for long-term success, says Jones.
“If employees can complete daily tasks quickly, instantly answer customers’ questions or help them find products in store, they will be happier and more satisfied in their role,” he explains. “In addition, being able to converse and share ideas with colleagues at all levels of the business will make every employee feel as though they have an important role to play in the success of the business. As we all know, happy employees who are working in a cohesive and supportive team are more productive and much more invested in going above and beyond for customers. Ultimately, giving employees the right tools will drive sales, boost brand loyalty and provide the foundation retailers need to build the innovations that will empower them to reimagine the shopping experience and stand out from the competition.”