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Voice technology is moving from the warehouse to transform store operations

Voice technology is moving from the warehouse to transform store operations

Karen Bomber, Director of Global Industry Marketing – Retail at Honeywell Safety and Productivity Solutions, examines whether mobile technology holds the key to surviving the Amazon Effect.

The following guest article has been written for InternetRetailing by Karen Bomber, Director of Global Industry Marketing – Retail at Honeywell Safety and Productivity Solutions. The company manufactures a comprehensive range of products, software and connected solutions that help retailers improve productivity, workplace safety and asset performance. Its broad offering includes industry-leading mobile devices, software, cloud technology and automation solutions.

How can brick-and-mortar retailers survive the Amazon Effect? For most of them the answer to this critical question would probably be ‘with a stronger omnichannel approach’; in other words, ‘by giving customers the best possible experience both in-store and online’. To achieve this ambitious goal, retailers need to streamline operations, which generally means one thing: empowering their shop assistants to be more knowledgeable, productive and efficient.

There are, however, major challenges to be faced: below-average productivity, one of the lowest retention rates of all industries and one of the least engaged workforces. Can mobile technology come to the rescue?

Today, retailers need to meet the needs of customers with virtually unlimited choices and pricing information online. According to a recent Honeywell/YouGov survey, their biggest challenge is how to meet these customers’ expectations and gain their trust. And, for 1 in 4 retailers, this goes hand in hand with the ability to increase worker productivity and effectiveness.

Achieving this goal, however, is easier said than done in a country where the level of productivity in retail lags its counterpart in the US by around 40%. Attracting and retaining employees can also be a challenge. With record job losses in retail this year, the sector may become even less attractive to both existing employees and job seekers.

And, with one in every four EU migrants in the UK currently working in retail, employers may soon be struggling to recruit staff from the EU as a result of Brexit. Faced with a potential skills gap and high turnover rates, retailers need to find new ways of improving productivity while enabling shop assistants to operate as efficiently as possible and minimising downtime.

So, what can they do to get there? For 67% of them, the answer may lie in mobile devices for their staff.

Two mobile technologies in particular are taking centre stage in retail: mobile computers and voice systems. They provide shop assistants with access to relevant, timely business information to enable consistent customer experiences that span both physical and digital channels. They also help increase their productivity and store efficiencies by guiding them through their daily tasks, performing fast data capture to more accurately track and replenish inventory.


The deployment of mobile computers can help retailers empower their disengaged staff, offering them the same ease-of-use and interactivity they are accustomed to in their leisure time. This can not only make employees more productive and efficient, but also help improve the overall customer experience. As mobile devices and data access match the features and functionality of the smartphones used by customers, they can help enhance their interaction with retail staff.

Laura Ashley, for example, recently deployed 161 Honeywell handheld computers and more than 450 scanners across 161 stores in the UK, Ireland and France. The retailer wanted to replace the bulky warehouse-style industrial terminals in use with Android devices that were similar to the smartphone technology that shop assistants and customers alike used daily.

Armed with smartphone-style, Android handheld computers, shop assistants now have all the information customers need in the palms of their hands. They are able to easily show customers Laura Ashley’s broad range of textiles, furniture and clothing on a user-friendly 5 inch screen. This is a key benefit considering that, according to PwC, nearly 6 out of 10 shoppers see ‘knowledgeable sales staff who can explain product offerings’ as the most important in-store attribute.

Similarly, Marks & Spencer recently equipped its employees with 9,000 Honeywell mobile computers to help them provide customers with a better shopping experience and keep shelves stocked. With the user-friendly device, a shop assistant can quickly and easily look up inventory while talking to a shopper without having to walk back to the stockroom. As these case studies show, a mobile transformation can make in-store operations faster and more efficient and have a significant impact on overall productivity.

Mobile devices also give retail staff access to a wide range of mobile payment apps. With just a few taps, they can check-out a shopper in the middle of a crowded store aisle, or they can place their order on the spot and schedule delivery to their home. At Marks & Spencer, shop assistants can also help shoppers find out about loyalty reward offers that are currently available to them so that they can get the best deal on their purchases.

It is also possible to streamline processes such as click and collect and stock inventory. At Laura Ashley, as soon as an item ordered through click and collect arrives in store shop assistants are able to quickly scan it on arrival with their handheld computers. These immediately notify the customer that the item is ready for them to collect. When the customer arrives, a shop assistant can easily scan the item to automatically update the stock inventory.

“This is the start of our journey and we’re in the process of replacing other devices,” comments Colin Rice, Head of IT, Laura Ashley. “We’re expecting that Honeywell will come to the table with us to share new ideas and spark new interest in what we can do to make the life of the store and the customer experience better.”


An established technology in the warehouse and logistics sector, voice is now starting to transform retail too.

What makes voice particularly effective in retail is that it makes tasks virtually error-proof, making the life of shop assistants easier while reducing downtime and improving productivity. Employees only need to receive simple commands and confirm their actions using a limited range of vocabulary meaning that there is very little room left for error.

So, for example, they are given the instruction, ‘Go to Aisle 7’, from the system. As soon as they arrive they verbally confirm: ‘Aisle 7’. They are then directed to go to Slot 42 in that aisle, where they read back a three-digit check character on the slot to confirm their location. They are then instructed to pick two items, which they confirm as soon as the task is completed.

Voice can also boost productivity by making the onboarding of newly-recruited staff faster. This is because tasks can be performed with minimal training, as employees receive simple, real-time instructions from the voice system. Perhaps unsurprisingly, for 64% of the retailers surveyed by Honeywell and YouGov, enhanced staff training has resulted in increased revenues.

In addition, retailers can capture detailed information about their operations as shop assistants complete their tasks, eliminate paper-based checklists and reduce the reliance on written inventory reports. The ability to capture and analyse this information means that they can make data-driven decisions to help identify areas of improvement and take specific actions to optimise operations.

For example, a large supermarket chain recently deployed a software and voice-based system on the night shift. It saw improved accuracy and gained access to more data for better visibility in its operation. In particular, the new depth of data available allowed the company to reduce the number of out-of-stock items on the shelves, and communicate daily inventory levels to central operations much more quickly and easily. The distribution centres providing stock to the storefronts were then able to make far more accurate decisions about the amount of food and beverage to send with each shipment.

With the solution in place the store managers could quickly identify items that were incorrectly included in the shipments they received. Using voice commands, shop assistants could immediately identify and document shop floor issues, such as missing shelf tags, incorrect setup of marketing displays and new product introductions that might need attention from the next shift.

The supermarket also gained greater visibility into the processes of their night shift employees and in real time. The store measured data points, such as the length of time that work processes were taking, how many items were put away and the number of over-shipments. Using this data, the store managers could then better align labour hours with shipment volume to prevent understaffing or overstaffing a shift.

Mobile technology can clearly play a key role in addressing some of the challenges that UK retail faces by empowering its workforce and streamlining its operations. As the Amazon Effect continues, a smooth and frictionless omnichannel integration will continue to be key to the survival of brick-and-mortar retailers and will be in large part determined by their ability to enhance efficiency and productivity both in-store and online.

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