Though the pandemic is over, the retail industry is still contending with serious challenges when it comes to demand. Economic uncertainty and skyrocketing inflation are making consumers more conservative with their finances, as well as more particular about their in-store experience. Now more than ever, customer service can make or break consumers’ purchases. At the same time, a persistent labor shortage (nearly half of all hourly workers plan to quit their jobs in the next year) and unpredictable foot traffic are making it difficult for retailers to accurately predict and successfully support customer demand.
It’s clear that change is in order. But many retailers are still scarred by the massive shifts that occurred during the pandemic, and are aching for a return to “normal.” But, normal isn’t coming back. The post-pandemic retail environment is here to stay, and the change is indelible. Now is the time for retailers to embrace that change and invest in intelligent automation to weather the conflicting economic conditions at hand.
Where intelligent automation is most dramatically reshaping the retail landscape is its use in retail workforce management, where it plays a critical role in labor optimization. It is enabling businesses – especially those with a large hourly workforce – to better match staff with demand to maximize sales, improve customer and employee satisfaction, and optimize labor costs. By automating the delicate calculations that go into forecasting customer demand and lining up employee schedules, retailers can ensure they have the appropriate employees on staff for every shift, making for a more efficient in-store customer and employee experience.
Reinventing demand projection in times of uncertainty
During the pandemic, we saw an unrelenting ebb and flow of demand, where businesses would open to floods of customers after being shut down, only for another wave of the virus to strike, stifling demand once more. For a while, many retailers were forced to completely restructure their own business model, adapting new solutions like curbside pickup to continue serving customers while keeping employees on staff. In the end, retailers were overwhelmed with the task of predicting the unpredictable.
This upheaval rendered old customer demand forecasting strategies obsolete . But those old demand forecasting strategies – which largely relied on historic data and gut instincts – were never very accurate to begin with. The pandemic and its subsequent aftershocks showed us that what retailers needed was a way to more accurately predict demand.
While it may seem as though AI is reaching into every corner of our lives, it’s been revolutionizing the retail space for quite some time. Only now, it’s getting smarter and more efficient, with algorithms tracking even the most miniscule ripples in demand. As these algorithms update regularly, they replace guesswork and instinct with hard data for more precise labor management. However, those insights will be moot if they aren’t pulled from every relevant touchpoint. To successfully optimize their labor, leaders must adopt automated solutions that account for the full breadth of factors that can tip the balance of supply and demand.
Not only does this level of automation allow managers to course-correct for any fluctuations in demand, but it frees up precious time. With AI doing the legwork of scheduling and predicting demand, management can focus more time on connecting with customers and employees , rather than wasting it on manual processes that require tremendous effort and produce suboptimal results.
Reducing manager strain through automation
The role of the manager has never been more important to ensuring customers and employees have a positive impression of the business. Throughout the pandemic and beyond, we’ve seen retail managers rise to the challenge in facing wildly vacillating demand, increasingly difficult customer interactions, and ever-changing safety regulations, all while shepherding their teams through an era of crisis.
If it wasn’t obvious before, it’s clear now that managers deserve more from their jobs. Retailers should be focused not only on how to make them more efficient and effective, but also on how to make the manager vocation more personally rewarding. Otherwise, they may lose their spark and burn out, leading to less meaningful engagement with customers and increased manager turnover.
According to research from Legion, 60% of managers still use outdated manual methods to predict demand and schedule employees. By automating manual tasks such as forecasting sales and labor and creating and managing schedules retailers give their management teams the ability to focus on customer service and meet their sales targets. They’ll also have more time to mentor employees, as well as focus on the more strategic elements of the job,which can result in a more positive store culture.
Managers want to engage with the most fulfilling parts of their job, not be tied down by paperwork and scheduling. When it comes to building a better retail experience for them, automation is non-negotiable.
Connecting employee experience to customer experience
Happier employees equals happier customers. It sounds trite, but research from Glassdoor shows it’s true – and it’s the exact reason retailers should be investing more heavily in workforce management that delivers intelligent automation. Easing the administrative burden on employees and managers allows them to focus their energy on meaningful customer service.
That said, effective implementation is not just about syncing up schedules. Rather, a strong workforce management strategy starts with a human-centric approach, grounded in matching employees’ unique skills and preferences to the needs of the business. While using old manual processes, managers might mistakenly think that worker flexibility and the goals of the business are incompatible, but automation allows them to find a middle ground and create more value for everyone, customers included. Automation is the tool that gives employers the power, time, and insights to better connect with employees and create a more fulfilling work experience, and therefore an improved customer experience.
If there is one thing we learned throughout the pandemic, it’s that everything can change in an instant. And no matter the scope and duration of those changes, retailers must be ready to pivot in real time.
In the post-pandemic retail environment, intelligent automation is the key to achieving true agility. As AI becomes more prevalent, retailers must seize the moment to uplevel their automation and demand forecasting strategies. Otherwise, they’ll miss out on critical opportunities to optimize their labor and better serve their customers.