Retail's connected future

As retail environments become smarter and more effective, how important is the connected store to the retail vision of the future? Tom Downes, CEO, Quail Digital, explains all

The in-store experience continues to evolve as retailers add new features, services, product categories and innovation to transform the customer experience. From virtual changing rooms with smart mirrors to showrooming, click and collect to self-service kiosks and cafés, retailers are extending the in-store concept in a bid to deliver the same interactive, intuitive and immersive experience on the high street that is provided online.
The goal is to enable such change without adding expensive Store Associates – yet in an already stretched retail environment, is it reasonable to expect individuals to manage the new diversity of in-store tasks?
Overstretched and Inefficient
How can a Store Associate prioritise activity when faced with a request for a different size via the smart mirror in the virtual changing room, a customer waiting for a click and collect order, and a delivery driver blocking traffic while waiting for the back door to be opened? Or decide between waiting to take bread out of the oven, which is almost ready, and the customer who is most definitely ready to be served?
As retailers continually expand the store concept, each additional aspect of the customer experience model adds to the pressure on staff. At the same time, Associates are alsoresponding to the increasingly intelligent in-store operations – from fridges and freezers that self-diagnose and automatically alert in the event of a problem to logistics companies using GPS to prompt an SMS that informs the store when a delivery will be at the back door in five minutes. The store environment may be more intelligent and intuitive, but it is also more complex and risks becoming inherently inefficient if staff are not supported and managed.
For many staff, the implications of this increasing complexity are both physical and mental. Staff walk miles every day between stock rooms and shelves, seeking click and collect orders or clearing the car park to enable the delivery lorry safe access. Adding the mental stress of expecting individuals to make the decision to prioritise one activity over another is clearly aflawed strategy. So what is the answer? How can retailers support staff to work effectively in an increasingly complex store environment in order to deliver the desired high quality customer experience?
Shop Floor Management
One point is clear: while staff can clearly handle many aspects of the day to day activity, when it gets tough, prioritisation must the role of the store manager. Yet in the vastmajority of stores, managersare stuck in a back office, looking at a computer screen - with no visibility of check-out queues or problems with bag handling, malfunctioning ovens or repeated issues with staff forgetting to remove security tags, setting off alarms as customers attempt to leave. How can these new and essential customer experiences be delivered within an environment that is already stretched to the limit?
If retailers are to achieve the required level of efficiency, managers need to be on the shop floor. They need immediate and complete visibility of every aspect of the store’s operations – and a fast, effective way of communicating with staff. But as retailers have discovered, in-store communication is challenging. The once ubiquitous tannoy system has been gradually replaced as retailers have recognised its intrusive impact on the customer experience butalternatives, including phones and walkie talkies, are far from fool-proof. These one to one communication methods are inefficient and it is not unknown for staff to simply fail to answer.
The alternative is to use an integrated wireless headset system, using a single channel to ensure all members of staff are in permanent communication, enabling the manager to direct operations. 
Critically, by integrating the head set communication system into every aspect of the store’s operations – from security to fridges, smart mirrors to delivery notifications – the manager can be on the shop floor continuously and proactively orchestrating staff to respond efficiently to this complex retail environment.
Team Work
With this approach, staff can work as a team, rather than dedicated to one or two specific tasks, and hence become far more productive. To further enhance staff efficiency, pre-recorded messages can be used to alert staff to specific events – such as fridge malfunction or when action is required at the compactor, doors and help-points. Staff spend less time walking inefficiently from one place to the other; and can ask a manager for advice or guidance at any time to help with activity prioritisation, minimising stress.
The efficiency and productivity that can be achieved by creating this connected store model are significant, with feedback from one UK retailer revealing 86% noted an increase in staff productivity, 67% an increase in store standards, and 67% believed the system made it easier to manage/control availability. Most notably, 86% also stated customer service was positively impacted and 57% that there had been an increase in morale and engagement within the store.
These latter facts are key. Yes, efficiency is clearly an essential objective if retailers are to continually look to expand the store concept. But in the bid to exploit innovation and leverage technologies, from security to self-diagnostics and showrooming, both customers and staff need to have a positive experience.
Better Experience
Just consider the way the remote security service can now respond to an event. Rather than just recording the situation via CCTV in response to a staff member hitting the panic button, leveraging the interface with the wireless headset, a security expert can both watch the situation and speak directly to the Store Associate via the headset. In addition to adding the audio recording to the CCTV evidence, this ability to provide vital advice and guidance will help the individual in-store better manage the situation and give reassurance.
Or click and collect, where a customer’s Quick Response code can be scanned at the door – or even in the retailer’s car park. The Store Associate will receive a notification via the headset that a customer has arrived and immediately go to the click and collect area where the screen will display the order number and customer information. With fast access to the reserved products, by the time the customer arrives at the collection point, the order will have already been fulfilled and be ready for collection. Fast and efficient for both Associate and customer.
Innovation is enabling new ways for customers to explore, try and purchase products. But technology and innovation alone will never deliver the perfect customer experience in store: it will be the way in which retailers empower Associates to connect and work together that will be the key to realising the retail vision of the future.