It’s Very Likely “Disruption” Will Be the New Retail Normal. So, Take Steps to Prepare Your Store Employees Now.

Simplifying store operations is key to ensuring your managers and associates can adapt to disuptive events in the future, in real time, regardless of their scale.

A retail store associate helps a shopper
by Kevin Tapscott
May 25, 2022

Just when it seems like retail is settling back into a “normal” state of operation, another wrench is thrown in the gears. Well, several wrenches. The continued rise of e-commerce retail makes it hard to forecast demand further than a few months using statistical, historical-based forecasting alone. Customers’ further-shifting preferences toward omnichannel services means you and your supply chain partners have to constantly innovate and scale. And, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over yet. Nor is The Great Resignation and ensuing labor shortage. If it seems like retail will never actually get back to what we consider normal, I’m with you. In fact, I would consider disruption the new normal. 

But as frustrating as it may be for you, imagine how this all feels to a retail store associate. They’re being told they must manage increased curbside and BOPIS orders, more returns from online orders, and more requests for service and support overall. They had to stand on the front lines of the pandemic, managing mask mandates and new cleanliness standards to help customers feel comfortable going about their lives. Now, with the labor market tightened and inflation high, they must take on far more than their normal job description would suggest, as understaffed shifts push them to do more than ever at record speeds.

We’ve heard many stories from our customers about the incredible efforts store associates have made to adapt to all these challenges – and their accomplishments are truly amazing!

But do they know how much you appreciate them? More importantly, do they know you’re doing everything you can to make their jobs easier the next time disruption inevitably impacts their day-to-day work? (Are you doing everything you can?)

The Litmus Test

Think about how your store associates would answer the following:

  • Do you know what tasks you need to be doing at all times?

  • How difficult is it to get help from another store associate when you need it, or to talk to a manager for assistance or feedback?

  • Are you getting the coaching you need from your store manager?

  • Do you feel like you have a flexible schedule and are able to easily swap shifts and change availability if need be?

  • Do you feel overworked all or most of the time?

Think about whether the answers to these questions mean that your store associates are happy and effective or frustrated and demoralized. I don’t have to tell you that employee turnover and low employee engagement is still a major issue in retail today. And with high competition to hire and retain talent, veteran associates may look for work elsewhere if they find themselves frustrated with the status quo.

These problems will only be exacerbated unless changes are made today to shield them from the impacts of potentially-disruptive future events. Which is why I’m sure we’re all asking the same question: what can we do to empower store associates, making them more agile and adaptable in the future?

We’ve seen many retailers take concrete steps to both support current employees and empower a next-gen workforce that is equipped to handle the disruption that is sure to persist in retail for the foreseeable future. From my perspective, and based on what others have proven, these are some of the most powerful actions you can take (with a little help from technology, of course):

1. Take the Onus Off Store Managers to “Get Staffing Right”

So many factors impact staffing levels in your stores, including many variables that neither people nor artificial intelligence can foresee. For example, we may know a pandemic or severe weather event is inevitable and, based on AI forecasting, we know it will impact business somehow, as demonstrated by antuit.ai. And in the height of any disruptive event, we know it’s going to create operational challenges. But it’s virtually impossible for a store manager to manually figure out the full impact on their labor schedules today or a week from now. Will some employees be unable to come in for their shifts? Will customer traffic change? Will customers panic buy certain products or change spending habits? All this uncertainty makes it extremely difficult for even the best store manager to make the right staffing decision – if there is such a thing. Even if they’re able to figure out the right schedule, they’ll have to focus exclusively on analyzing the third-party data, staff availability, anticipated demand, and other variables. Then they’ll have to spend a lot of time actually formulating the plan.

I’m sure they’d be happy to hand this task off to an artificial intelligence (AI) platform that can aggregate and analyze these data sets in minutes and automatically create the best schedule based on the information available today. And I’m sure you won’t have a problem implementing an AI-powered workforce management solution given that it’s proven to generate the most accurate labor forecasts and schedules for your employees. It removes the guesswork from labor scheduling, making it much easier to align with the in-store workload and other information that impacts staffing. And it almost guarantees both staff and managers will be on the clock when needed.

Instead of store managers spending hours every week trying to account for all the variables that matter most at your stores – sales, traffic, employee availability, standard workload calculation rules, and more – the workforce management solution can now generate optimized schedules in a matter of minutes. From there, your store managers can make minor schedule revisions or last-minute adjustments. This gives them time back to better train associates, assist customers, and manage disruptive events in the store.

2. Make It Super Simple for Staff to Get the Information They Need, When They Need It

Conditions are always changing when disruptive events occur. Consider how, during the COVID-19 pandemic, policies were constantly evolving. Are masks mandated or suggested? Do store hours need to be adjusted to accommodate high-risk individuals? Do store occupancy limits need to change? Are sales of certain items currently limited to prevent customers from panic buying the entire shelf stock (or arbitrage goods)? Store associates need the latest information as quickly as possible so they can adequately carry out their tasks and adhere to the latest policies.

All of this can be resolved with a real-time communication tool that streamlines the process of sending messages and contacting other store associates or managers. Instead of tracking down a manager when an employee is uncertain about what to do, or about how to manage certain tasks like curbside pickup orders, they can simply send a message to get the relevant information.

This ultimately has an impact on how much work store associates can get done. By sending and receiving information at a faster rate, task completion rates and speeds increase. Of course, during crises, instant communication capabilities become even more important. The faster that information can be sent between employees, the faster that store managers and associates can react as conditions change to help ensure operations are maintained as “normally” as possible – at least from the customer perspective.  

3. Simplify Execution of Store Operations and Service Delivery

Store associates are always being asked to do more. Fulfill curbside pickup orders. Handle online returns. Restock to-go prepared food items. Inventory shelf stock and replenish as needed. Adapt to changing policies. The harder it is for them to do their jobs, the more likely they’re going to work for a retailer who will make their jobs easier for them – even if they’re technically doing the same job somewhere else.

A real-time task management solution they can access via their mobile devices is key to helping store associates manage their work. 

Just think about how many new task requests are generated at the corporate level each day. Now add those to the tasks store managers are assigning or a prescriptive analytics solution may be recommending based on the current state of store operations, recent sales, reported inventory levels and more. Now think about how hard it must be for anyone – including a store manager – to help each employee prioritize those tasks. They all seem important because they are all important. But are they all time sensitive? 

That’s what a real-time task management solution helps answer. 

It has the built-in intelligence – and an advanced rules engine – that can automatically prioritize the most impactful tasks that store associates should be doing and then intelligently direct tasks to those associates through personalized task lists on their mobile devices. This enables them to always be in the right place at the right time, working on the right thing – without always having to ask someone for help prioritizing. Because their list shows up on their mobile device, they can check it any time to see what needs to be done. Even better… alerts and notifications can be sent their way when new tasks arrive, letting them know whether it’s critical to complete certain tasks now or if they can wait until later. For example, if they need to urgently move snow shovels to the front of the store prior to a snowstorm or focus on restocking water as a hurricane heads toward the area, they’ll know. Likewise, if a truck is late, they’ll know they can stay focused on another task for the time being. With the solution feeding the latest actionable information to staff, it becomes possible to manage by exception, and that creates new opportunities for improvement – to customer satisfaction, sales, and stock levels as well as employee morale.

Need to Make Changes to Prepare Your Associates for Whatever May Come Their Way?

If you’re interested in learning more about how other retailers have leveraged technology to improve store operations, customer experiences and staff capacity when challenged by disruptive events, our team would be happy to sit down with you. We can talk about how your current challenges and goals compare, as well as the more individualized approach we recommend for your business to ensure you and your team can handle anything – without stress levels spiking to the same level they probably have these past couple of years. You can also check out some retailers’ stories on our website and learn more about the technology solutions I just mentioned. 

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Kevin Tapscott
Kevin Tapscott is Vice President of Solution Consulting for the Americas at Reflexis, which is now part of Zebra Technologies. He leads a team of retail operations experts who help retailers simplify their operations and optimize their labor with intelligent task management and workforce management software solutions.
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