Rise of the machines

 

Paul Skeldon worries that mobilising your shop floor staff isn’t omnichannel nirvana that meets a growing customer demand, but is the end of society as we know it.

Just before Christmas last year I took my other half shopping to get some boots. In Dune she found a pair of knee length, black suede beauties that did the trick. As we took them to the check out to pay, the sales assistant complimented my good lady on her choice of boots, adding: “They also come in grey”. She then whipped out an iPad from under the counter, got up the Dune home page and found them.

My girl was smitten and ker-ching they were ordered online there and then. That canny shop assistant – and her iPad – doubled the value of me as a (hapless) customer. I had seen the future of in store retail in action.

To date, this is the only time this has happened to me and I am surprised. The idea of arming your staff with mobile devices seems a no brainer. In fact, most of them already have their own mobile devices, so it’s not even that costly.

Yet the mobilisation of shop assistants is something that very few retailers have embraced to date – and perhaps, as we shall see, with good reason.

One company that has done it with alacrity is Boots [IRDX RBOO]. Its Sales Assist app enables staff to answer customer questions about the range, from reviews and ratings through to location, and make recommendations powered by analytics that tap into the product databases on boots.com. If a product is not in stock in store, the member of staff can use the app to find where the item is held, whether that’s in another nearby store, or order it to collect as soon as the next day.

The app, developed in partnership with IBM MobileFirst and Apple, is now running on 3,700 in-store iPads across Boots’ 2,510 strong store estate.

“The unique tool allows our colleagues to quickly show product information, ratings and reviews, look up inventory online and make recommendations based on online analytics, all from the shop floor,” says Robin Phillips, Director of Omnichannel and Development at Boots UK. “It will help even our smallest stores feel like a flagship shop, with access to the entire Boots range at their fingertips.”

“An issue with mobilising staff that very few retailers focus on is the impact on the staff themselves.”

Interestingly, the app was also developed using a team of actual Boots shop floor colleagues to make sure that it actually works for the staff. Boots customer assistant Vickie Ward was one of the team invited to help design and develop the app based on her in-store experience. She said: “We worked hard to design the Sales Assist app around the needs of Boots colleagues, and using it gives us the confidence to provide our customers with the most up-to-date advice on products and offers on the spot. It helps us to give customers an even better and more personal experience, so that no one goes home disappointed.”

Halfords meanwhile is attempting to use Smart Watches to enhance click and collect at one of its stores and has seen collection rates improve, cut paperwork and get the staff excited about technology.

Working with retail technology specialist Red Ant and Samsung, Halfords has trialled a range of in-store tablets for customer use as well as phones and smart watches to help staff pick click and collect orders.

Currently, more than 90% of Halfords online orders are for click and collect and the new technology offered to smooth customer experience. Using the tech, staff are automatically notified of incoming customers and their orders on the screens and watches. They can then use their phone or smart watch to generate a pick list, allowing them to put new orders together while they walk around the store.

Customers check in on a touchscreen kiosk at the front of the store and confirm their order, are shown any relevant upsell products and are told where to go to collect their order. Customers can also use the kiosk to ask for help, which pages a staff member on their phone or watch.

Overall, the trial at the Halfords store in Leamington Spa improved collection rates by 1% and cut paperwork from three sheets per click and collect order to one. Use of the latest mobile devices made staff feel valued and part of the process of innovation.

mobile in store

Katrina Jamieson, Digital Director at Halfords, explains: “We’re always looking for new ways to enhance the shopping experience for our customers, whether it is in store or online. Our store innovation programme has been set up to allow us to trial innovative ideas and test them in a real-world environment, so that we can see in a very practical way how they could benefit both customers and colleagues. The click and collect pilot in our Leamington Spa store is a world first, and an innovative step towards providing a fully-connected retail experience for our customers.”

Such mobilisation projects are few and far between. What mobile tech can offer should go way further for retailers and should be part of the everyday. According to Eva Pascoe, founder of world’s first internet café, Cyberia, and now at The Retail Practice, an analyst firm hired by big brands to deep dive into the future: “Mobile is the answer to retail’s prayers in terms of customer engagement and loyalty, and helps retailers achieve what I call the “minimum viable utopia” for shoppers. With innovations such as Apple Pay, what happens on an EPOS can happen on a mobile device. Every employee is a cashier and every point in the shop is a money taking point. This solves the biggest customer satisfaction issue, long queues. This is a fundamental change in our retail behaviour of the past 100 years.”

The perils of technology

There are some very good reasons why many retailers aren’t looking to mobilise their staff any time soon. The first stumbling block many retailers face is the ‘BYOD dilemma’. Boots and Halfords have opted to supply the hardware to the staff, but many firms may well be reluctant to do so. So what do you do?

“BYOD is both an opportunity and a threat for retailers,” warns Peter Wake, CEO and Founder at StorIQ. “Let’s split the ‘BYO’ and the ‘D’. With the ‘D’, the device, the opportunities are rife when you compare smartphone or tablet devices with till-point PCs. Employees have a wealth of options with hand held devices when helping consumers, with cameras, internet capabilities and geolocation. They are also efficient with touchscreen and the always-on nature of mobile.”

Wake continues: “However, on the ‘BYO’ side, there are numerous threats presented when encouraging employees to BYOD. Firstly, retailers do not hold the right to mandate, or even ask, staff to use their own devices within the workplace. It is also very difficult to differentiate between workers using their own device for work, and those that are using the tech for play. This isn’t helped further with the gap between junior level digital-natives and more senior staff, who typically aren’t as tech savvy as their successors, which can cause issues during BYOD technology management”.

Warns Wake: “In my opinion, the retail industry isn’t ready for BYOD, but technology is a feature that consumers are not only wanting to see in-store, but are also expecting. Store staff need the support of technology but retailers must maintain control by providing this through company procured apps on store-owned devices that drive forward the business as a whole.”

till-point PCs. Employees have a wealth of options with hand held devices when helping consumers, with cameras, internet capabilities and geolocation. They are also efficient with touchscreen and the always-on nature of mobile.”

Wake continues: “However, on the ‘BYO’ side, there are numerous threats presented when encouraging employees to BYOD. Firstly, retailers do not hold the right to mandate, or even ask, staff to use their own devices within the workplace. It is also very difficult to differentiate between workers using their own device for work, and those that are using the tech for play. This isn’t helped further with the gap between junior level digital-natives and more senior staff, who typically aren’t as tech savvy as their successors, which can cause issues during BYOD technology management”.

Warns Wake: “In my opinion, the retail industry isn’t ready for BYOD, but technology is a feature that consumers are not only wanting to see in-store, but are also expecting. Store staff need the support of technology but retailers must maintain control by providing this through company procured apps on store-owned devices that drive forward the business as a whole.”

Where the staff have no name

Another issue with mobilising staff is one that very few retailers focus on: the impact on the staff themselves. According to Lee Biggins, Founder and Managing Director of retail job site CV-Library: “As digital technology continues to evolve, many employers across the board have voiced their concerns over the use of smart devices in the workplace. For retail workers in particular, who often spend vast amounts of time in customer-facing roles, using tablets and smartphones for personal use during working hours is deemed inappropriate and could ultimately damage the brand’s reputation. However, there are instances where this technology can be used to better service customers, and to make the process smoother and more efficient for consumers on the shop floor; in this case, the use of tablets and smartphones in retail workplaces could be beneficial.”

Biggins also believes that there are yet to be unearthed dangers with arming store staff with other mobile tech. “Some retail workers have voiced concerns that using this technology in their day to day work could lead to stricter workplace rules and even micromanagement, providing employers with increased access to employee tasks and activities throughout the day. Much like businesses who provide their staff with wearable technology having access to data such as step counts and hours of sleep, retail employers should seek a balance where staff can use digital technology to improve customer satisfaction, without feeling like they are being micromanaged or policed.”

These concerns among staff could make them resistant to the introduction of mobility policies among retailers and this, along with technology issues and costs may well put retailers off.

This could all be small fry compared to the long term impact mobilisation could have. Car-hire company Uber is often held up as an exemplar of technological disruption and its latest move to introduce autonomous, driverless taxis in a partnership with a tech form called Otto, which already runs autonomous long-distance haulage solutions could herald what we all fear most: the replacement of people with technology.

Driverless taxis may be several years away and staff-less shops yet further into the future, but initial moves to mobilise could well be the first steps to a monumental change not only in retail, but in society in general.

Mentioned in this piece…

Boots

Boots

IRDX: RBOO

Boots is a pharmacy chain and multichannel retailer with outlets on most high streets throughout the UK and Ireland. (more…)