Retail is changing. Shouldn’t store communications technology change too?

April 26, 2022

Together with Qualtrics, we surveyed 356 retail professionals in the U.S. and Canada to find out whether comms is being disrupted as the industry undergoes a transformation. Then, we took an even deeper dive into our findings with special guest Julia Russell, Editor, Retail, Media + Technology at Smartbrief. Here is a snippet of the conversation with retail comms veteran and Head of Content at Zipline, Emily Lane, who sat down with Julia for the final webinar in our webinar series.

When looking across the spectrum of all retail technology – both employee-facing and customer-facing – what emerging themes are you seeing?

I feel like this is a very overused term right now, but I have to say omnichannel. It’s not a choice anymore. It’s not a nice to have… every retailer has to have omnichannel as part of their strategy. It just has to happen.

There is one caveat to this: omnichannel technology has to be functional. It has to be convenient and it has to fit into how shoppers and employees are already using tools. There just can’t be anything superfluous, that’s not gonna set up the customer for a good purchase journey and it’s not gonna set up the employee for a good, successful customer experience. 

Which retail departments do you think are seeing the biggest boost in their tech budget spend this year? Why is that?

When we look at it from the bigger picture of the big retail business – definitely stores and warehouses. Retailers really need to be spending on technology that facilitates all of those omnichannel functions that store employees have to take on since the beginning of the pandemic. That requires so many different layers of technology, both consumer-facing and employee-facing. 

And then if we zoom in a little, I would say that grocery departments are seeing huge spending on technology because consumers have finally fully embraced grocery eCommerce since we were all forced into it.

Where does employee communication technology rank among these other tech initiatives? Do you see retailers starting to make more of an investment in this area, or is it kind of an afterthought? Why is that?

I think that it is kind of a little bit of an afterthought. I think that it can often get lost when retail leaders are thinking through their strategies, especially because so much of the decision-making comes from such a high level.

Sometimes the everyday function of how information gets disseminated down the line through to the store employees, the frontline workers, can just kind of get a little bit lost.

It’s been over two years now of an incredible, laser focus on omnichannel, but you really don’t hear a lot of retail leaders talking about what that means from the perspective of the people who are actually operating and working in the stores. So I honestly don’t know that it ranks that high, but it really should. 

Retailers have to realize employee communication technology is an important part of the successful shift to that true omnichannel experience. It’s that piece of the puzzle for your business.

Good employee communication really enables retailers to set the workers up in their stores for success. It really does a lot to deliver a better shopping journey for the end-user for the customer. An employee who is confident knows what’s going on, they’re more likely to deliver all the correct items in that curbside order, and they’re more likely to be able to answer a question if a shopper comes up to the customer service desk to pick up a BOPIS order. They’re also better able to help those shoppers, who actually come out to the store asking questions. Also, those confident employees are going to stick around longer. 

The most important thing to keep in mind is that all of these things directly affect the customer experience. When you have a confident workforce, you are going to be giving your customers a better experience, and they’re more likely to come back and shop with you again. And isn’t that the whole goal of retail?

Let’s go from the pinnacle of technology to the opposite of that. When we surveyed retailers and asked them what communications channels they were using, it was telling. This chart shows retailers are using more than one channel. More than half of the companies we surveyed use four or more. It’s the opposite of a one-stop shop; everything is spread out. 

Why do you think so many large retailers who need omnichannel experiences and cutting-edge tech continue to fall back on antiquated technology and tools like fax, email, conference calls, and voicemail?

I think a lot of it goes back to when we talked about how technology funding is prioritized. I think it’s often not top of mind for retail decision-makers, and also… it’s “easy.”

Retail has just gone through such dramatic change over the last two decades. Like 20 years ago you could barely order a book on Amazon and yesterday I ordered a pair of Allbirds and they are in my hand today. 

I mean 20 years seems like a long time, but in the life of a business, to go through a change that dramatically in the last two decades is so crazy.

But in two decades, we’ve seen new technology tool on top of another. So [retailers] just layer one system on top of the existing system. Then another one pops up and they keep just layering them on top of each other. Now it’s this web of disparate systems that don’t talk to each other. That really makes it tough to truly incorporate new technology into something like a store setting.

Your employee and your workforce directly impact customer experience. Retailers are focusing on layering all these new technologies on each other because they are great for customers, but they don’t really think through how that technology needs to come into play for in-store employees. In today’s world employee communication has to be more than an email or a notice stuck on a bulletin board in the break room, it just has to evolve. 

What impact do you think Covid-19 has had on the prioritization of communication technology in retail organizations?

COVID has been a moment of reckoning in so many different ways. One of them is the omnichannel experience for the customers. But another one is the change in protocols, the regulations were just changing every single day. Talk about the breakneck speed of change. That was literally hour to hour, things were changing. It really is more important than it has ever been just from a safety perspective. Frontline workers are essential workers now. Especially grocery store workers – regardless of the state of the pandemic, through this whole process and continuing into the future, they have to keep coming into stores so that consumers can eat.

It’s about making someone feel safe in their work environment. It is a real challenge to hire and retain people in the retail industry right now, to say the least. There has to be a way to really alleviate those anxieties that are so understandable, expected, and natural. Anybody in that situation would feel that type of anxiety when it comes to their own health and the health of their families. It’s been a real moment to show the industry that these, that email is not going to get the job done when it comes to making workers feel safe and getting people (shoppers and employees) in the stores.

When it comes to the store experience, is there such thing as too much technology?

Definitely. 100% yes. 

Everybody wants new cool tools and everybody wants to try the next biggest tech, but is this tool actually gonna bring value to the shopping experience or the work that the associates are doing in the store? And if the answer is no, it’s probably best to just forego it. 

There is another aspect of this question to think about, too… Preference! Shoppers are really picky about the tools that they use. Retailers really have to take this into consideration because when you have so much technology available, it dilutes everything. The same goes for workers. They already have so much going on that,  if it’s a technology that isn’t going to seamlessly work itself into their existing jobs, adoption is gonna be low. 

One of the findings we loved learning from the State of Store Communications survey is that Zipline customers have better confidence in the clarity, accuracy, and consistency of their communications. We love being a vendor that can actually make retail workers’ lives easier. That’s something that we are really excited about. 

Julia, tell us, in your opinion, what are the top reasons why a retailer should choose one type of technology and type of technology vendor over the other?

A lot of the time it comes down to convenience. This is interesting to think about because that’s really what it’s like from the consumer perspective. And it’s also what it’s like from the retailer’s perspective. I mean, cost definitely comes into play of course, but at the end of the day, retailers want a technology that will be relatively easy to incorporate into their existing systems or existing structures. And if a technology tool can make a business more efficient, that’s a huge bonus.

Well, thank you so much, Julia, it’s been a joy talking to you. Thank you so much for sharing your insights with us!

If you’d like to learn more about how Zipline can take your store communication teams to the next level, reach out today

👀 Download the full industry benchmark report to see more!

🎧 Get involved in the conversation by tuning into our webinar series! (Didn’t make it live? No worries! Register anyway and we’ll send you the recordings AND the report)

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