The Retail Employee of the Future: Human, Robot, or Combo?

The Retail Employee of the Future: Human, Robot, or Combo?

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Among the many challenges multi-location retail brands face are two common ones. Finding and retaining the best people and the role of automation in their businesses are top-of-mind across all retail categories.

These two are closely related, as retailers incorporate self-serve technologies into their operations and AI into their marketing strategies and execution.

The human face of the brand becomes even more critical as simple functions like check-out and inventory management become automated. Microsoft believes that “Retailers need their workforce to be digital, data-fluent, and diverse.”

The smart store or restaurant requires smart hiring and management.

  • Digital savvy and data fluency are now table stakes. Investing time and resources in training staff on new technologies is more important than ever. If you roll out a new POS system but don’t spend adequate time teaching in-store staff how to use it, staff frustration and delays in customer service are bound to result.
  • If you supplement or replace team members with self-service technologies, make them part of the process. The most successful technology integrations are those where humans see automation making their jobs easier rather than presenting a risk or frustration. According to one study, people who work with outdated technology are 750% more likely to be frustrated and 450% more likely to want to quit. But you still need to help employees see and experience the benefits of new systems. Plan fun and engaging training systems using gamification and peer training as part of your onboarding. Reward team members for accurate and creative use of new technologies and encourage early adopters to help train co-workers. Ask your software and hardware providers to participate in training and troubleshooting too.
  • People must have a wide range of skills and reflect their market. Especially as the number of people working in brick-and-mortar retailers gets smaller, those employees need to possess a broader range of skills than ever before. Creative problem-solving, willingness to adopt new technology, and customer service excellence are just some of the qualities retailers must seek. Expand your view of the ideal retail employee. Retirees and parents returning to the workforce may be eager to work and have incentives to stay on in their roles. Look to brands closing stores in your region as a source of qualified talent. Act quickly to find and engage their top employees.
  • Consider technologies that benefit both the customer and the employee. Customer behavior analysis, targeted marketing, check-out, and inventory are not the only applications you should consider automating. Areas like scheduling, payroll, employee safety/security, and performance assessment can all be assisted by technologies that have value to your team members and not just your bottom line.

When introducing new technologies to your retail operation, ensure your customers see that as a benefit. When a retail team member complains to a customer with phrases like, “We have this new system, and it is so complicated,” that reflects poorly on your brand.

Ironically, the advent of new retail technologies should ideally result in a resurgence of old-fashioned customer service.

Simple interactions like greeting customers, making personalized recommendations, and assisting people with questions can result in memorable experiences, larger purchases, and word-of-mouth accolades.

With fewer humans working at the retail level, those who are in-store have an even broader role as the faces of the brand. Hire wisely, train well, and (as always) reward and retain top talent.

Nancy A Shenker, senior editor with Street Fight, is a former big brand (Citibank, Mastercard, Reed Exhibitions) marketing strategist and leader. She has been featured in, the New York Times and Forbes.