Retail IT teams are headed toward disaster. Here’s why.

Enabling frontline teams will help retailers implement more initiatives - better and faster. But when it comes to technology, stores are still an afterthought.

May 9, 2022

The metaverse. Artificial intelligence. NFTs. Though these are usually dubbed “digital capabilities,” all employees, especially those on the frontlines, play a role in bringing these technologies to life. Maybe it’s delivering an e-commerce order to the curb for a customer. Maybe it’s explaining what an NFT is to a confused parent. Or, it might be as simple as helping a customer scan a QR code.

Retailers simply can’t implement better technology without the help of their (already overloaded) frontline workforce. 

Think about a new Point-of-Sale rollout: IT may lead and manage the project, but it’s up to the store teams to arrange for a vendor visit, to take the hardware offline, to put up signage to alert customers to the change, and to verify that the installation went as planned. If any one of these tasks falls down, the customer experience suffers and the POS project doesn’t meet its goals.

While nearly 1 in 4 retailers are planning to increase technology budgets for their IT team, only about 1 in 25 are allocating additional tech spend to their stores. How are stores supposed to implement an increased number of IT projects when no one is setting them up for success? Brick-and-mortar store teams are key when it comes to realizing the full potential of this increased spend in other departments, but they’re often an afterthought. Retailers who are making big financial bets on cutting-edge technology risk their investments falling short if they don’t prioritize the role store teams play in the success of new technology.

We partnered with Total Retail to survey retail executives about the way they currently use technology and their future technology plans. Here are a few highlights from the data collected: Specifically, three ways IT executives should think about the frontline associate experience to ensure technology rollouts are successful:

Take a collaborative approach to the tech buying process

Customer-facing digital roll-outs, inventory management technology upgrades, and investments in AI and automation don’t happen in a vacuum. They require immense coordination between headquarters teams, vendor teams, and – in most cases – frontline workers. 

What’s more, increased spending on technology will be nearly table stakes for retailers looking to keep pace with their competitors. Nearly three-quarters of respondents (74 percent) indicated that their company’s overall spending on technology will be increasing in the next 12 months.

Unfortunately, C-suite leaders still sign off on big technology purchases without taking the time to first gain buy-in from the departments that will feel the downstream effects of the new initiative or product. And more often than not, the teams left out of the loop are the ones who work in, or in service to, the stores.

Today’s winning retailers understand the importance their store teams play in the success of any technology rollout. For instance, Gap Inc. made headlines recently when they acquired CB4, a tech startup and AI engine that forecasts demand in terms of what products are going to sell, where they’re going to sell, and when they will sell. Gap Inc. has already seen a positive revenue impact, and a large part of that is due to the deliberate way they prioritized change management in the field. “Our store associates are a tremendous asset,” said Gap Inc.’s Chief Digital and Technology Officer, John Strain, during a recent shareholder meeting. “No one knows and loves our customers, our products, and our brands, quite like our store associates.” As Gap Inc. continues to mature their omni offerings, proactively investing in frontline associates keeps them one step ahead of customer expectations – and the competition.

Before signing off on new technology, loop in Store Operations and Communications leaders who can help assess the extent to which store employees will need to be brought into the change. Forming this partnership upfront ensures your frontline teams embrace new capabilities with open arms and bring your brand to life for customers in the best way possible.

When selecting a tech vendor, consider training from the beginning

Here’s a concerning fact: When asked to look at factors that impact technology investment decisions, retailers still rank “the amount of employee training needed” as the least important. However, when asked to rank challenges with new technology implementations, retailers rank integration No. 1 and training staff as No. 2. Therefore, it seems as if it would serve retailers well to consider the training piece earlier in the vendor selection process.

Perhaps employee training isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when evaluating front-facing solutions, like augmented reality experiences or RFID technology. But every single one of these solutions is in pursuit of a singular result: transforming the customer experience. And what’s more central to the customer experience than the store itself? 

The retail hierarchy is unique because the bulk of a retail company’s employees (90%+ of them, in most cases!) sit physically removed from headquarters, distributed across discreet store locations. They are the most difficult population to reach, and (thanks to variable pay) the most expensive to re-hire and re-train. This means that change management across stores is not only difficult, but also extraordinarily important.

To help prepare front-line staff for a new customer environment, best-in-class retailers make investments in training technology alongside their investments in technology. Better yet, these retailers select vendors based on the amount of support they provide in terms of training and change management for frontline teams.

Invest in field enablement solutions that ensure understanding and adoption

While traditional store employee-facing technologies like WFM software, auditing solutions, and LMS platforms might not be on retailers’ radars in the coming years, they’re essential to ensuring a successful rollout of all the other technologies gaining traction across IT, Customer Service, Marketing, and Supply Chain teams.

You can’t successfully roll out new back-of-house technology if you lack the ability to track the execution of that roll-out in the field. For instance, say you launch a Ship from Store initiative, but only 29% of customers receive their shipments (because we know standard retail execution sits at 29%). It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what a result like that would mean for the company’s bottom line.

Retailers have to increase their digital capabilities in order to keep pace with rapidly changing customer expectations. But slapping upgrades on top of a crumbling workforce infrastructure will surely end in failure. In order to ensure your investments in new technology are worthwhile, first lay the proper foundation to enable the store employees who bring those technologies to life.

Zipline is the field enablement platform we wished we had when we worked in stores. By streamlining and personalizing messages from HQ, it quiets the noise and prioritizes work for field teams. Integrations and an open API put everything in one place and gives employees the context they need to get their jobs done. Real-time communication capabilities and powerful insights give teams the knowledge agility they need to have more control over the business. Zipline enables retailers to pivot quickly, roll out strategic initiatives and ensure the whole company is aligned.

🗺 Are you ready for the next destination on the retail technology road map? Together, NAPCO and Zipline surveyed over 100 retail executives to get a better understanding of their current usage of technology, future technology needs and wants, and their processes within their organizations for technology purchases.

👉 We uncovered some interesting data. Take a look at the full report.

📣 If you’d like to learn more about how Zipline can ensure your technology upgrades are executed correctly, and on time, reach out today.

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