The retail industry has always been incredibly dynamic. It has been at the forefront of every major technological revolution. Perhaps that is the reason the retail industry has not only survived but come out stronger after every crisis. Right from the time of World War II, through every pandemic and economic downfall, the retail industry has set an example of how to bounce back. It has provided major support for every economic recovery after every downturn.
Department stores came into existence in the mid-to-late 19th century, the first shopping mall became operational by 1954, and the journey of evolution has never stopped ever since. Currently, the size of the global retail industry is USD 23 trillion and is expected to maintain healthy growth in the future as well. The death knell for physical retail has been sounded for many years now with the emergence of ecommerce. But physical retail has shown resilience with transformation to different formats, with experience centers, distribution centers and dark stores, and new innovative last mile delivery models.
Brick and mortar stores have been severely impacted with the recent pandemic, but even companies whose business models are built around online retail have seen numerous challenges. Customers continue to expect prompt, high-quality service from retail brands both online and offline, while demand has seen huge swings.
Whether physical or digital commerce, Intelligent process automation (IPA) can be a major growth enabler across business sectors. Intelligent automation in stores, distribution warehouses and back-office operations provides retailers with the flexibility to identify and adjust for changes in customer traffic and buying patterns, both in-store and online. It is starting to play a vital role in the growth and evolution of the retail sector as a whole. Let us see how IPA is contributing to the growth trajectory of the industry.
IPA Technology Penetration in the Retail Industry
The retail industry has been very prompt to embrace intelligent process automation technology because it amplifies productivity, provides better governance of the business operations, and helps to enhance their customers’ shopping experience.
A study conducted by the National Retail Foundation and IBM revealed that 40% of the consumer product and retail companies have deployed IPA. Further, the study revealed that by 2021 as many as 80% of the retail companies are expected to embrace IPA.
Let’s see how intelligent automation is relevant to different aspects of a retail enterprise.
Enabling more dynamic logistics
Retail logistics involve sourcing and stocking merchandise that has to be as dynamic as changing consumer preferences. Even a small retail unit needs a very strong logistic system in place to stay relevant today.
You need to remain updated about the stock of your product in your warehouse as well as on your display. Robotic process automation (RPA), one of the significant technologies of intelligent automation, can be deployed to track your entire stock-keeping system and notify you about the receding SKUs. Hiring manual staff for this would be more time-consuming, error-prone, and expensive.
Intelligent automation bots can also help retail companies analyze the market and the demographics of the area of their operations. Technology can help create the entire product offering, marketing strategy, and pricing by tracking competitors’ offerings.
Intelligent automation helps to manage and analyze the mammoth data produced at a retail unit and bring out insightful business analysis that helps the retail heads to take strategic decisions. This is particularly helpful for retail chains with multiple stores in multiple locations.
Easing up the back-end
With orders flooding in online every day, retail teams are likely to get overwhelmed with all of the processing, recording and expediting. This is precisely the kind of task that automation can help with. IPA bots can streamline the inflow of customer data and give packing, delivery and support agents all the relevant data required to process orders rapidly. It also makes processes like form filling or order status checking much easier, helping teams to focus on more creative and strategic tasks. Moreover, automation eliminates the risk of oversights or errors, allowing the brand to deliver top-notch customer service.
Leveraging actionable insights
The millions of website interactions and orders placed every day contain valuable insights about customer preferences that retailers can leverage. With automation in place, retailers can pick up promptly on information about new product varieties that customers want or multiple complaints about a specific issue, thus allowing for quick resolution before the customers move elsewhere to shop. Data insights also allow retailers to launch new products in anticipation of future demand and thus be first-movers in the market, in addition to providing personalised recommendations. Given the fluctuating nature of the retail landscape, automated processes can give retailers the agility and real-time data they need to keep pace with the trends rather than fall behind.
Operating more efficiently
With automated processes, routine tasks can be handled more efficiently while human effort can be redistributed to where it is required the most. Real-time automated task distribution, allocation and tracking solutions can eliminate time wasted on dependencies and inefficient scheduling. Reactive workflows to handle deviations can prevent further escalations. Data driven employee re-distribution across various sites can allow most efficient resource utilization based on predicted demand. Advanced rostering algorithms can enable hiring the right kind of full-time or part-time employees based on required skill-sets and time-driven needs, ensuring an optimal headcount for each division. This not only brings down employee costs but also enhances overall operational performance.
Better data-driven planning
By introducing IPA into the supply chain and distribution network, retailers can gather crucial insights about inventory requirements at different locations and different times of the month or year. This helps them plan their inventories in advance and source only what they need, thereby reducing wastage. Moreover, retailers can use geographical and seasonal data on sales to plan new store openings and seasonal campaigns or product launches. Automation, in short, enables efficient investment of resources into avenues that have been demonstrated, by data, to have a high likelihood of success.
Better collaboration with vendors and partners
Technology can today provide visibility across the network at a level that was previously not possible. Different vendor/partner/supplier systems can be connected via APIs to exchange relevant information in real time. Self-help vendor and partner portals can give access to key data from ERP systems to relevant stake-holders and significantly reduce the volume of support requests and time spent in mundane data updates and ad-hoc communication. Vendors can update milestones and communicate delays in real-time, enabling better planning down the supply chain.
Better in-store customer experience
The pressure on physical stores to attract and retain customers is greater than ever. Delighting customers with novel shopping experiences driven by innovative campaigns, great planograms and utmost attention to hygiene and safety is a priority. Regular audits, enforcing daily checklist and adherence to standard operating procedures can help identify issue before they start impacting customer satisfaction.
There is a lot of dynamism in how physical stores are operated today. Customer experience is a key barometer for predicting the success of a physical store. Staffing the stores with the right employees, available at the right times is key. Many housekeeping activities need to be performed before and after working hours. There are exhaustive cleaning, stocking, and staffing checklists that need to be ticked before the customers start to walk in. Not to forget, the measure that needs to be taken to prevent any untoward incident such as retail theft or accidents – all these can be taken care of through intelligent automation that can assist store managers make better data driven decisions around staffing, rostering and performance management.
Expedient Customer Service
Today’s customers need instant access to information and support. Right from comparing prices and product specifications to reading the third-party reviews, they are very well placed when it comes to making informed purchase decisions. Intelligent process automation only makes the process smoother and more comfortable for the customers as well as the retailers.
IPA in retail helps to trace the processes in case of any complaint or discrepancies. Right from notifying the customers about new offers and updated inventories to taking orders, raising invoices, billing processes, and tracking deliveries, everything can be made so much more full-proof, faster and better with the help of intelligent process automation.
Artificial Intelligence helps to identify customer preferences through both their online and offline shopping patterns. The technology helps to analyze their shopping history and pitch for new products in the same category or pitch them for higher ticket purchases.
Customer Engagement and Brand Recall
IPA helps to reach out to every customer with a personalized message and customized offers. This would be a herculean task if done manually. It would require hiring more staff, training them for the task and giving them salaries regularly. Intelligent process automation does not only take care of these incremental expenses, but it also does the work with utmost diligence. Couple of simple examples of how IPA could improve the customer experience:
- IPA driven product cataloging, updating merchandise inventories on the website to prevent cart abandonment due to incomplete fulfillment
- Automated messages to new and existing customers, tracking customers’ preferences, and making the brand visible to them on social media and other digital platforms are also carried out using Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.
Streamlining the Organisation
Over time, intelligent automation can reshape the value chain in the retail industry, leading to agile organisations with fewer layers and better-trained workforces who count on real-time data and analytics to power every task. Businesses that quickly embrace automation will see these organisational benefits sooner, thus enabling them to stand out among the competition.
According to a recent McKinsey study, about half of the current processes in retail can be automated. However, this does not mean human jobs will go away. By automating routine operations, the retail industry can redistribute its workforce across more strategic roles where the human touch is crucial. There will also be a need for more process designers, who will lay out the blueprint for the functions that will be automated. As intelligent automation becomes a part of the day-to-day, we can expect workforces to invest in reskilling so as to be ready for the new jobs that automation will create.
No-code intelligent automation platforms like Zvolv give retail brands the flexibility they need to set up their automation solutions they need, quickly and efficiently. Each brand has its own way of launching products, running campaigns and managing customer relations, which off-the-shelf tools cannot always accommodate. With platforms like Zvolv, brands can benefit from a unique blend of extensive do-it-yourself capabilities, a vast array of features, deep intelligence capabilities and unrivalled customization capabilities, at a total cost of ownership that is easy to justify based on the value delivered. Retailers can thus create their own customised, feature-rich intelligent automation processes without any developer involvement. From data collection and order processing to store planning and customer self-service, automation can streamline the retail experience for both customers and the retail team and enable the brand to accelerate its growth.
Intelligent process automation has the potential to make business processes smarter, swifter, and more responsive. It enables human resources to be more efficient. Sooner or later every business organization that wants to evolve with time will have to embrace this technology. The good news is that gradually, more and more business heads and CIOs are waking up to the virtues of IPA and embracing it for their businesses.