Close this search box.

GUEST COMMENT What’s wrong with WhatsApp for retail operations?

Image: Shutterstock
Amy Bastow is MD of StorIQ

There’s no denying the popularity of WhatsApp – it has over two billion users. But it might surprise you that an estimated 650 million, according to messaging app The Guild, are using it for business, and that includes the retail industry.

We’ve had countless conversations with retailers who have said that prior to investing in a retail operations platform, they were using WhatsApp to manage stores. This isn’t just limited to small brands you’ve never heard of, but bigger players too. Don’t get me wrong, WhatsApp is a brilliant chat platform, and WhatsApp for Business has some great features for retailers to connect with customers, but the app hasn’t been built for retail operations.

The main reason why businesses shouldn’t be using it is actually in the terms and conditions themselves, which state that WhatsApp for non-personal use unless authorised by them is prohibited. But aside from the legal T&Cs there are plentiful reasons why retailers shouldn’t use it for task management and retail operations.

Confusing communications

Posting on WhatsApp is quick and easy, but that also means it’s hard to control the message when everyone can contribute. This was a particular problem during the peak of the pandemic when Covid guidelines were changing frequently. Stores would be asking questions and often getting the wrong answer from well-intentioned staff members who didn’t have the correct up to date guidance. 

Moreover, you can’t create chat threads to structure your conversation. This could mean complicated threads or conversations between store and field teams where questions end up getting lost or misinterpreted.

Take the example of a product recall. Head office urgently need to get a message out to store teams to ensure they have read it, understood, and acted. Now, imagine you have 1,000 store managers. Some have used an emoji to react to the message with a thumbs up, some with a tick, while another 200 have posted a new message to say ‘will do’ which then buries the original request under a long chain of responses. The long stream of messages means another manager might miss the original message, but head office also has to decipher if the thumbs up means the message has been seen, or they’ve seen it and actioned the request. You could also create a separate chat group for different tasks, but then you run the risk of accidentally leaving out key team members out of group chats.

Hidden costs

WhatsApp is of course free, but there are hidden costs. Modern retail operations are complicated and have numerous processes in place. If you’re using WhatsApp to communicate a new process to staff, such as a click and collect service, it could lead to confusion or mistakes being made. That’s not great for customer service and could cost the business.

WhatsApp is not designed for retail operations, so retailers have to put procedures in place to govern its usage. This takes time, both in putting procedures in place and training staff. In comparison, a purpose-built platform for retail will have common use cases that are prevalent in the retail environment that can be adapted easily and quickly. It can also streamline operations and increase efficiency by taking the guesswork out of communications that could get lost on platforms like WhatsApp.

Data privacy and GDPR is another factor. Is the information being communicated between employees secure and safe? In switching between private conversations and a work chat is there a risk that messages might be posted in the wrong place? Data breaches need to be taken seriously and using WhatsApp is unlikely to be considered GDPR compliant.

Businesses are effectively taking a risk if they allow employees to use a consumer messaging app that operates outside of their control. In addition, ex-employees might still have access to these groups and sensitive business information. 

Cutting through the noise

WhatsApp at its core is a messaging platform. Senior management need to know that stores are receiving the right information and that they are completing the tasks associated. They don’t have time to trawl through endless messaging that might not be relevant to them, such as which employees at the Oxford branch are off sick.

Having communications spread across so many different platforms leads to fragmentation and important updates and messages being missed. Head office may have spent time developing a process and sharing guidelines on what’s to be expected, but if employees don’t know where to find this information, or managers need to individually check with employees that they’ve read the guidance – it can slow the process down. Retailers need to prioritise a single source of truth where information is shared and in an easily digestible format.

Stores also need access to analytics and data, just like their online counterparts do to ensure operational efficiency is maximised. Having access to a wide range of compliance reporting means head office can track completion rates and manage exceptions to drive productivity in store. This isn’t easily achievable in WhatsApp.

Compliance concerns

Visual merchandising (VM) is another area where we’ve seen WhatsApp used, which has created huge admin headaches for Field and VM teams. These teams could be receiving 100s of photos to sign off window displays or other VM standards in random groups that they then have to download if they want to keep. There’s also no workflow to get a store to change something or check if the issue has been fixed. It’s also a time consuming process as those photos then need to be put into an easy to evaluate format and be checked to ensure they have photos from every store.

Of course, it’s possible for this to be completed over email, but WhatsApp will often be used because it’s quicker for the store teams to snap and then upload. Having a tool that can organise photos for VM teams where they can build a visual archive of stores and give real-time feedback within a purpose built app can ensure problems are fixed in a timely manner and make the whole process more efficient. Head office can also mark a photo as an example of best practice, both celebrating a job well done and helping other stores see the standard they should be aiming for.

Blurring work/life boundaries 

Employees will be used to using WhatsApp in their personal life. Having work groups alongside social groups can blur the boundaries. No one wants to receive messages about a late delivery of stock on their day off. While managers will also want to ensure staff aren’t being distracted during working hours. Retailers are already facing significant employee churn so ensuring staff are able to switch off when they’re not working can also support their mental health and ensure they have time to recharge.

Better technology that helps them with their job is also a key benefit. The Guild’s survey also found more than 75% of the 500 surveyed said they’d prefer to use a WhatsApp-like app that was exclusively for the purposes of work. In fact, this is also supported by a Dell survey which found 91% said the technology an employer uses influences their job choice.

So, by all means use WhatsApp to stay connected with your friends and family, but if you want to ensure your retail estate runs efficiently and profitably, and attract staff, retail leaders should be demanding investment into a purpose built retail operations platform. 

Amy Bastow is MD of StorIQ

Read More

Register for Newsletter

Group 4 Copy 3Created with Sketch.

Receive 3 newsletters per week

Group 3Created with Sketch.

Gain access to all Top500 research

Group 4Created with Sketch.

Personalise your experience on