Some Say Technology is the Key to Retaining Grocery Workers. Here’s What We Know.

The labor challenge is real and not going away. But it doesn’t have to be disruptive. If you can transform the front-line associate experience, you’ll have a competitive advantage.

A grocery associate uses a Zebra MP7000 scanner at the point of sale
by Your Edge Contributor
June 22, 2022

This post was written by Steve Paro, Chief Product Officer, Applied Data Corporation, a Zebra Independent Software Vendor (ISV) Partner. 

Grocers and other retailers are facing a confluence of major business challenges at a time when many stores are still recovering from two years of disruption and rapid change. It’s difficult to find and hire workers, especially in a labor market where competition is fierce and wages are on the rise. It’s also tough to grow sales and meet customer expectations right now with supply chain issues and rising costs complicating everything.

Moreover, even though customers are returning to stores, the overwhelming majority of them are planning to keep using online ordering and curbside pickup or delivery at the same or even a higher rate in 2022 than they did in 2021. In McKinsey & Company’s recent State of Grocery Consumer Survey, 53% of U.S. grocery shoppers said they plan on maintaining the same level of frequency in buying groceries online in 2022. Another 20% said their frequency would increase. Similarly, 27% of U.S. consumers plan to increase their curbside pickup usage in 2022, and 25% say they’ll increase their use of online grocery delivery. This is in addition to the 50% and 55%, respectively, who say their click-and-collect and delivery order activity will remain the same. 

In contrast, while customers have been returning to stores, only 13% said they were planning to shop in a physical grocery store or food market more often in the next 12 months, and only 27% of U.S. shoppers said they would buy groceries online less often. 

The insights shared in Zebra’s 14th Annual Global Shopper Study back up this trend. 

Nearly three-quarters of shoppers say they would prefer to have items delivered to them rather than pick up orders at the store or other location. And over three-quarters (77%) say they have placed a mobile order in the past three months, with over half of Boomers taking advantage of mobile commerce (m-commerce) options. Thirty-five percent of Boomers confirm they have used mobile apps for grocery or food delivery specifically.

This means grocers must continue to adapt to the new normal of digital grocery while figuring out how to get ahead of today’s many challenges. The good news is that we’re operating at a time when technology can help grocers quickly make necessary changes. 

Why Associates’ E-commerce Fulfillment Experiences Matter and Retailers Should Take Notice

One way that grocery stores can effectively respond to demand for hybrid grocery commerce is by adopting technologies with a focus on the associate’s user experience. After all, our grocery associates are the ones on the front lines, often performing a new hybrid role of in-person customer service as well as fulfillment and management of e-grocery orders through actual stores, dark stores, warehouses, or micro-fulfillment centers.

To make their jobs easier and enable more efficient and accurate picking, as well as impeccable customer service, retailers must take new approaches to process modeling and introduce technologies built to facilitate omnichannel workflows and information flows.

For example, if you’re an associate in a traditional grocery store or a dark store and you need to simultaneously fulfill multiple e-commerce orders, you’re faced with a number of challenges. You need a way to quickly locate and pick the right items, preferably on the most efficient pathways, so you can fulfill the orders accurately and on-time, preferably with minimal walking and effort.

Also, since grocery product quality issues and expired foods are often the top complaints among curbside pickup shoppers, you need to ensure items such as deli foods are prepared and picked in close conjunction with a customer’s pickup or delivery time.

You also need to know what’s in stock and what isn’t, and you need a way to swap in an alternative product or communicate with the customer to specify a substitution when something isn’t available. But that requires quick access to the customer’s preferences from the original order entry or real-time communication with a shopper who isn’t there in the store.

On top of all this, even if you have the right information and tools at your fingertips, perhaps through software apps, if things aren’t presented in an easy-to-use and efficient way, the whole experience can be frustrating. This is especially true if you have to deal with a clunky and time-consuming digital fulfillment process or multiple devices and touch points.

Anything that makes a grocery worker’s job more frustrating is a problem that deserves serious attention. This is especially important at a time when grocers are struggling to keep stores and fulfillment operations staffed, and at a manageable cost.

As Kristina Behr, Microsoft’s Vice President of Product Management for Frontline Workers and Industry said recently, “Frontline workers are the face of your business. Making sure that they are empowered and equipped with the optimal tools is vitally important for success. If it’s frustrating for you to use the tools, your whole job is frustrating.” Her colleague, Nicole Herskowitz, Vice President, Microsoft Teams, reiterated this point in a recent conversation she had with Rob Armstrong from Zebra Technologies. The two companies are working together to create digital collaboration tools that close the communication and information gaps for front-line workers with a “single pane of glass” because of this simultaneous challenge and opportunity. 

Retail associates made it clear in the Zebra Global Shopper Study that they could provide a better customer experience if they had a single device that enables them to clock in, manage their task lists, communicate, and collaborate with one another, and quickly address customer needs. In fact, 70% of associates went so far as to say they view their employers more positively when they are provided with technology. 

Yet, according to Microsoft’s most recent Work Trend Index, 34% of frontline retail workers say they still don’t have access to the right technology to do their job effectively. This challenge is acutely felt in the grocery industry due to the historical industry complexities, operational siloes and adoption speed to new technologies. Some of the hesitancy to go all-in on technology may be fueled by past experiences, even though today’s technology is far simpler to implement, manage and learn.  

Now is not the time to question the value of technology. If your associates aren’t equipped with the best available tools to do their jobs, and your fulfillment processes are inefficient and inaccurate as a result, it’s more than a hassle for associates. It potentially costs your business time and money at every step, translating into substandard experiences for customers.

Empowering Grocery Associates with the Right E-commerce Fulfillment Solution

Fortunately, with the right combination of mobile technologies, software, and system integrations, grocers can create internal solutions and user experiences that enable completely digitalized fulfillment processes and highly-rated shopper experiences. You can equip associates to fulfill more orders in less time, with the precise items that customers want, while creating cost-saving efficiencies and user-friendly automation that makes the whole process amazingly simple and stress-free.

For example, grocers can equip next-gen associates with a single software solution that integrates with store systems, third-party delivery apps, and even geolocation and gig economy technologies. This can create a single, seamless process for assigning, picking, quality checking and handing off orders.

Using an all-in-one solution, you can empower associates to fulfill orders quickly and efficiently from physical stores as well as dark stores, warehouses, or micro-fulfillment centers. A single app can prompt and guide them through the entire process, with simple digital touchscreen workflows that use artificial intelligence (AI) to arrange and strategize each order for maximum fulfillment speed. Associates will be shown optimized picking paths and guided step-by-step through multi-order and zonal picking tasks. They don’t have to waste time figuring out the right flow for anything. 

Additionally, with a well-designed mobility solution, real-time item substitution information and customer communications can also be made available, so workers can quickly address out-of-stocks and ensure that shoppers still get a comparable item when needed and preferred. Moreover, with digital interactions, the whole process can be gamified with fun and easy task management, goals, metrics, and performance insights that appeal to younger – or simply competitive – workers.

By also having connectivity to third-party services and geolocation, a solution like this can be used for fulfilling orders for home delivery and curbside pickup. In fact, it opens opportunities for stores to develop their own delivery services, so they don’t have to share customer and transaction data with third parties. There is tremendous value in being able to fully control the customer experience and protect sensitive business operations. 

Plus, a unified app and software solution for grocery fulfillment can help you keep your data in-house while generating actionable customer preference metrics. In turn, you can optimize your supply chain operations and inventory levels for the most popular and trending e-commerce items. The same data points can be leveraged to optimize marketing, merchandising, and loyalty programs as well.

From the associate’s standpoint, though, the big wins are in terms of improving usability of technology and simplifying the process of grocery fulfillment. When you can make their jobs easier, lessen the burden of getting tasks done, and do it all while keeping things fun, gamified, and goal-oriented, you can boost productivity and efficiency. You can also attract and retain new hires more easily.

Technology Adoption + Associate Experience = Loyalty for Employees and Shoppers

Ultimately, well-designed grocery fulfillment solutions create an ideal user experience for store associates, which translates into more effective recruiting, hiring and retention. This is absolutely vital at a time when many workers are choosing employers based on the technologies and support they provide to their employees.

When you give associates easy-to-use and intuitive digital tools that simplify fulfillment and save them time and effort, they are happier and more engaged. They also have more time to provide customer service for in-store shoppers and to work on other tasks to support store operations, which keeps their jobs diversified, less monotonous, and more appealing.

From a business standpoint, when you can execute store operations with less manual labor and better cost-effectiveness, and when you can attract and retain associates to strengthen and stabilize your workforce, you can quickly gain a competitive edge in a challenging marketplace. 

From the shopper’s perspective, if they’re able to pick up or get their orders delivered faster and more accurately, with the ability to share their preferences and communicate with store staff in real time, you end up with a happier and more loyal customer.

This is something we’ve seen firsthand in our work in the grocery industry, where our team at Applied Data Corp has worked closely with leading grocers and Zebra Technologies to deploy digital e-commerce fulfillment solutions such as ShopperKit

As we all grapple with the challenges of inflation, supply chain disruption, and a tough labor market, it’s important to remind ourselves that technology is a crucial tool we all have at our disposal and potentially at our fingertips. It can be used in a very human-centric and user-focused way to empower the people who ultimately drive customer service and our business growth. And there is no better time than now to invest in our workforce. In turn, they’ll become more invested in our businesses and our customers’ experiences. That’s the recipe for success.

If you would like to learn more about the hardware and software tools that have proven effective in grocery environments, you can contact ADC or your local Zebra representative.

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Your Edge Contributor
Zebra will occasionally publish insights from members of our partner community, our customers and other subject matter experts across the global industries we serve on the Your Edge blog. Background information about each individual author can be found at the bottom of their contributed blog post.
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