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RBTE 2016: Employee empowerment rises up retail's agenda

One of the most enjoyable aspects of attending the RBTE in London (which has just completed its sixth successful year of operation) is that it's so easy to see in real life what it being talked about at the event.

London is a hotbed of very competitive retail shops. The city remains one of the world's top performers when it comes to retail sales, and the UK overall ranks among the top countries in internet sales (#1 in 2013). So if you want to see what is happening in retail, there is no better place to look than London. 

Another factor that makes retail in London so interesting is the high service profile that is in evidence in Oxford Street's stores. Of course this is driven by the fact that so many of those stores are fashion outlets, where service is important. Nonetheless, it's hard to go into one of the stores without taking notice of the great service being offered – not just by employees but with the help of technology too. It's not happenstance that the RBTE event is really three events in one, with a technology expo, a digital signage expo, and a store design expo. In London at least, it's easy to see all three of these at work on the shop floors, creating a visually exciting and information rich environment, all intended to create a compelling shopping experience for consumers.

In the end, of course, service is best demonstrated not by clever and flashy technology on the sales floor, but by engaged and engaging employees. The question for retailers today is how can they engage today's tech-savvy employees? Beyond the obvious "give employees the tools they need to help them help customers shop", it turns out that today's employees want the same thing that people have always wanted, to have a positive impact on their organisations.

And that turned out to be a topic of discussion during the RBTE 2016 conference sessions!

Engaging employees

For example, Chris Hewerston, the CTO of GLH Hotels, gave a presentation in which he talked about how GLH made its decisions about the cloud-based solution portfolio to be used by all four of its hotel brands.

Instead of dictating the solutions, Chris and his team set up a competition where the hotels would choose which systems they would use in their daily work. The technology team developed the design criteria (open APIs, modular SaaS architecture, "mobile-led" interfaces, a viable business case, and an intuitive UI), and reviewed the recommendations for compliance to the criteria.

One of the outcomes of that process is that the people operating the hotels understand their systems. A measure of that acceptance and understanding is that of all the calls the support centre gets, less than 20% are about the technology (the rest being about the best way to accomplish a task). 

Another excellent presentation about employee empowerment was offered by James Wintle, the global director of digital & technology at All Saints, a London-based international fashion retailer. James talked about how his company fosters a "social mentality to communicate our brand value". He pointed out that All Saints is "all in-house", where the employees have input on store design, fixtures and store layouts, and the source and manufacturer of the fashions they sell. To promote social communication both inside the company and with consumers (and "to kill the email culture", said Wintle), the company partnered with Google to implement Google+ for all communications.

"Google+ behaves like a social platform", said the retail technologist. "And it's a rich experience. We can embed video into our communications." – for example, to show how a display should be set up.

"It just works… like a consumer product," exclaimed Wintle.

The point of All Saints' pursuit of a collaborative environment is to convert its employees into brand ambassadors.

RBTE conference

As the RBTE event has grown, it has expanded its conference schedule, bringing in speakers like Hewerston and Wintle to discuss how their companies face the same issues that retailers everywhere must deal with.

In the cases highlighted here, the subject was about how to engage employees, in the belief that engaged employees make good brand ambassadors, and ultimately that serves both the customer and the company better than a bare-bones self-service shopping experience.

As I visited the stores on Oxford Street later in the evening after the conference, I could see that the speakers were right – when retail employees are not just selling the brand, but actually are a part of the brand, shopping is actually fun!

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