Roundtable: Connecting store associates for modern retailing

British Retail Consortium (BRC) research released at the start of March suggested that the rate of change within the retail workforce is set to speed up over the next ten years.

The trade association predicted that as more property leases come up for renewal and the cost of labour goes up – while the cost of technology continues to go down – the retail labour market of 2025 could be defined by considerably fewer, albeit better, jobs.

Employment that remains is expected to be more productive and higher earning, said the BRC, with the growth in technology and industry competition driving an improvement in customer experience and better jobs for those working in retail.

It was against this backdrop that Essential Retail teamed up with Manhattan Associates, on 9 March, to hear exclusive insights from retailers operating in this changing landscape. Companies from the grocery, furniture, fashion, entertainment and healthcare sectors gave an indication of how they are introducing technology into the store environment, and the challenges and opportunities that accompany this process.

The mobile movement in store

The rise of mobile technology is one obvious driver of the changing job role for retail staff, with stores now increasingly identifying the benefits of offering free Wi-Fi, and store associates increasingly tasked with combatting showrooming by serving the shopper away from a fixed till point – often with the use of a tablet device.

Mobile point of sale (MPoS) has been described as a growing industry trend for a number of years, but there are still very few businesses operating in the sector which can lay claim to offering it across their estate. The service has even more potential when tied in with a central system that allows staff to access a single view of inventory across the organisation and customer purchasing history but, again, there are a limited number of retailers that have fully integrated this capability.

Commenting at this month's roundtable, on the potential of MPoS, Dune Group's retail omnichannel manager, Dave Abbott, said: "In footwear, it's a huge one.

"We've got 150 iPads across 40 stores and we have great assisted sales through the devices. In smaller sites we can see assisted sales contributing +20% of the store's sales."

But he warned: "It's an employee tool with an interface that doesn't look like the website. The minute you say here's a screen with our website on it, the customer will go away to maybe buy the product online."

As the BRC report suggested, if there is to be a significant reduction in the retail workforce in the coming years it needs to coincide with an improvement in the experience for both the customer and staff. For that to occur, two-way communication between the boardroom and the shop floor is paramount.

Andrew Ogden, a senior business partner in Asda's retail operations team, noted: "A lot of the time it's a case of throwing technology out there and seeing what sticks.

"We gave our store managers iPads and placed apps on them we thought might be useful. They probably used around 10% of them, but we started getting great feedback from colleagues."

Summarising a shift in retailer-consumer interaction on the shop floor, he added: "Consumers now have access to better technology than companies do.

"When I started work I only got access to cool tech when I joined a business, but consumers have leapfrogged us in terms of the tech we as organisations can provide. The consumer tells us what they want to do, and we as retailers need to listen."

Tools to engage customers and store colleagues

One way to bridge any potential corporate-consumer technology gap in stores is for retail staff to use their own devices to serve customers. The notion of bring your own device (BYOD) in the workplace has evolved in recent years, from companies permitting work emails on employees' personal phones to retailers such as Net-a-Porter putting central administrative tools and systems on iPads and iPhones that facilitate efficient working practices for the wider head office team.

Tesco recently introduced its Inform app to some of its shops, which store managers can download onto their personal iOS or Android devices. The app, which will also be available on Windows phone soon, can then be used to scan barcodes on a product or shelf-edge label to gain information about stock levels and availability.

If there is no product left on the shelf they can use this information to do some troubleshooting, with the aim of getting the item back on sale as quickly as possible. The tool is also a method of keeping customers up to date with product availability.

Paul Wilkinson, head of technology research at Tesco Labs, explained at the roundtable: "Making this information far easier to access for everyone means that colleagues are much better equipped to serve customers.

"Information that used to be hidden away on computers at the back of the store can now be accessed by all colleagues at the shelf edge."

Furniture retailer Heal's, meanwhile, has regularly featured on the pages of Essential Retail for some of its practical use of in-store technology, and its deployment of new systems to address real-life problems specific to its operations.

Examples include smart glasses being worn by staff in store to give web customers a real-time view of the products they purchased online, and the introduction of Cloudtags' system which is placed onto tablet devices in stores and can be used by customers to scan products of interest during their shopping journeys.

Commenting on the latter, James Williamson, digital marketing and content coordinator at Heal's, told delegates: "It starts the conversation between the in-store customers and the associate and leads to re-marketing and learning about shoppers' journeys.

"We try and keep it sales-associate-focused and make it so the use of the tool is a joint experience between them and the customer. We can link this to the salesperson in-store if the purchase is made online further down the line, which works well because our associates work on commission and are very reluctant to hand over sales to online."

Experimentation with technology is a feature across sectors, with health and wellbeing retailer Lloydspharmacy currently building up to a roll-out of an in-store assisted selling tool. The aim is to provide a platform for showcasing the company's extended range – effectively an endless aisle in the store.

Lloydspharmacy, which manages prescriptions and dispenses medicines on behalf of its customers, often looks to provide a wider education piece to engage customers, such as advice on how to stop smoking or information relating to travel medication.

"The service aspect is key for us," said Claire Glassborow, the retailer's head of online.

"We can give our customers extra services – for us it is not necessarily about increasing basket size to make money but it's about boosting customer retention through use of technology, providing access to information and services, which is a great opportunity."

There are multiple ways retailers are using technology to bridge a gap between offline and online channels, and to enhance the customer experience in what are often costly-to-run property portfolios.

It was clear from those speaking at the roundtable that any investment in this field needs to offer a tangible benefit or solve a particular issue. There is, it seems, limited benefit from just using MPoS to send in-store customers to a retailer's website when a major reason for shoppers entering a store in the first place is to receive a different kind of experience to that which is accessible online.

"With MPoS you don't really want a customer to walk into a shop that many people in your company have made visually stunning and compelling only to send them straight to a screen," argued Asda's Ogden.

Technology, people and shop culture

Whether retailers encourage BYOD, MPoS or invest in the most cutting-edge equipment, they still face a challenge in making sure their staff actually use the technology at hand. Often, this has meant a cultural shift is required within organisations that may have been used to operating in a certain way for multiple years.

Kate Stilborn, head of operations at Blackwell's, revealed that the bookshop chain's Oxford store used to have a sign on the wall that informed customers they would be left to peruse the available books with staff at their service when required. This philosophy has now been uprooted, with all staff encouraged to actively engage with visitors and approach each customer who enters the store.

Detailing how technology is used in this process, she said staff are positive about the prospect of using tablets to serve shoppers, following a recent pilot, and she does see a day when MPoS might completely replace traditional point of sale, but there is a challenge around ensuring the company's long-serving booksellers combine their "amazing product knowledge" with use of new systems.

"Our customers expect a high standard of proactive, intelligent customer service," she explained.

"Our booksellers don't use scripts and we don't expect every customer to be uniformly approached. It's about booksellers treating every customer as an individual and using their service skills to judge when a customer needs them to step in and offer advice."

Much of the technology that exists to aid the MPoS process in today's retail world is marketed as giving retailers an opportunity to access a CRM system detailing a customer's purchase history and previous shopping behaviours. There is vast potential for retailers to optimise sales, upsell and engender customer loyalty using such tools, but it is the intelligent input from people using these systems that can make this in-store interaction a success.

White Stuff's IT director Julie Price agreed, saying that often retailers should await an indicator from the customer before technology is used to its full potential by shop staff as a route to a more personalised selling approach.

She remarked: "People don't want to feel as if they are being stalked. A better interaction is if a customer says 'I think I bought something from you in the past' and the store staff can say 'I'll check for you'.

"There are situations where shoppers are more open to that conversation, when you do a click & collect order for example you know more about that customer so there are certain journeys in a shop that are much more open to a deeper and personalised experience – and you can absolutely use technology for doing that.

"It needs to be done in a way that isn't intrusive – you can supply all the technology in the world but it won't necessarily make it successful; it's how you bring it into the culture of the shop and how you train staff that really matters."

Booths Supermarkets' IT and eCommerce director, Andrew Rafferty, added: "Technology in our business is about efficiencies and improving internal communications.

"In our stores we need to be careful to not force tech on our customers – it should be for colleague comms and stock availability. We have a lot of long-serving colleagues in our shops and we try to foster the community aspect of customer service as much as possible."

According to the BRC, the retail industry – which is the UK private sector's largest employer – could see around 900,000 jobs lost between now and 2025, but judging by the conversations at this month's roundtable it is clear technology and the drive to improving customer experience is creating new roles within the traditional retail operation and making businesses change their approach to their respective workforces.

Dune has a 'Harry' specialist in each store, who is responsible for giving guidance on and overseeing the array of new technology now installed in its shops. Williamson from Heal's speculates that the influx of new systems being trialled in stores may lead to job roles dedicated to this specific function. Tesco and Booths are examples of retailers using tech-driven staff feedback to shape their strategies, partly through utilising Microsoft's enterprise social network Yammer.

"Store managers and the people who work in store are out there serving customers every day so there is an opportunity for us to get their knowledge and ideas fed back into the wider business and platforms like Yammer make this much easier," explained Tesco's Wilkinson.

Craig Sears-Black, UK managing director at Manhattan Associates, who also participated in the roundtable discussion, says that in a digitally-enabled age it can be easy to get swept away by the capability of automation and self-service, but "it is the store associate who will be at the heart of a meaningful in-store customer engagement".

"And by combining real time customer and stock information with a new skill set and incentive model, retailers can empower store associates to transform the customer experience and re-energise the in-store model," he explained.

"Now is the time for retailers to embrace the opportunity to reshape the store experience to support and enhance the digitally-inspired changing customer expectation."

Full list of roundtable participants: Dave Abbott, retail omnichannel manager at Dune Group; Claire Glassborow, head of online at Lloydspharmacy/Celesio UK; Andrew Ogden, senior manager – retail LCOM at Asda; Brian Postles, business development manager at Manhattan Associates; Julie Price, IT director at White Stuff; Andrew Rafferty, IT & eCommerce director at Booths Supermarkets; Craig Sears-Black, UK managing director at Manhattan Associates; Kate Stilborn, head of operations at Blackwell's; Corinna Walker, senior marketing manager at Manhattan Associates; Paul Wilkinson, head of technology research at Tesco Labs; James Williamson, digital marketing and content coordinator at Heal's.

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