Intelligent process automation – A game-changer for the Retail Industry

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.

Conclusion

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.

The power of immediate solutions

Albert Einstein famously said “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Today’s enterprises are not very different. Problems keep festering for ages, workarounds abound and the can keeps getting pushed down the road. Until it is already too late. Business as usual no longer works – and you need an immediate solution!

Enterprise processes are often very complex, making digitization a challenging proposition. Traditional development methodologies take an insane amount of time to document, build, test, deploy and maintain your applications. Your business leaders have the process expertise and know the problem statements quite well. But a lack of budget, time and technical expertise is often the main reason why implementing potential solutions keep getting delayed.

With today’s dynamic business environment, problems are evolving at a rapid pace, and digitization is no longer an option, but an imperative to stay relevant. A fundamental change in mindset is necessary to enable building solutions rapidly.

With the advent of no-code and low-code development platforms, enterprises can now empower a whole new set of business users to build, integrate and scale processes, without depending on back-logged IT teams or dependency on external development partners.

With the rapid pace of development, and the low cost of deploying solutions, processes can be transformed overnight. And with DIY capability, changes can be made in a matter of hours.

At Zvolv, we have seen the transformative power of ‘immediate solutions’ first hand at our customers. Here are some recent examples of value customers have driven in days, which would have otherwise taken them weeks.

  1. A leader in fashion retail had an urgent need recently to collect personalized information from their network of over 8k employees to meet an on-going financial audit mandate. With sensitive financial data needing to be shared, off-shelf SaaS tools were not an option. And with a short two day timeline, custom development would not have worked either. Fortunately they had just on-boarded with Zvolv and were able to quickly build the required web and mobile forms, pre-populated with contextual data, coupled with tasks, notifications and dashboards to visualize the feedback and take corrective actions.
  2. A large public services organization got approved to run its private Covid vaccination drive for its 50k+ employees and family members. With a vastly diverse group of people to cater to with varying degrees of digital enablement, any solution deployed had to be flexible enough to accommodate every user. Having used Zvolv previously for other initiatives, it was the natural preference to build this tracking and payment management solution on. In a matter of 2-3 days, the solution was put together, and iterated on several times to accommodate feedback from many stakeholders. Over 10k vaccinations were conducted within the first week of launch.
  3. A leading grocery retailer was faced with a sudden change in business plans due to the Covid imposed lock-downs recently, where the volume of home-delivery requests grew suddenly from less than 5% of their business to almost half of the business. The store rostering plans had to be rapidly reworked. Zvolv was already in use for other optimizations and they were able to leverage Zvolv’s data and dashboards, and run quick analysis to enable putting hiring plans together for the entire network of over 800 stores.

These are just a few examples of the kind of use cases that organizations would struggle to automate and fall back to depending on excel sheets and emails, if a no-code/low-code platform isn’t already in place.

No-code platforms like Zvolv can drive enterprise grade digital transformations, with solutions that take days to roll out. Zvolv is built for the enterprise – with security, scalability, and reliability you need to deliver end-end solutions for your most critical business processes.

Who is going to create your next enterprise application?

We have all read numerous articles on how software is eating the world, and how there aren’t enough software developers in the world to build all the applications that are needed to be built. Based on leading industry studies, there are over 500 million applications to be developed in the next 5 years, and in the US alone there is a shortfall of over 1 million developers every year. At a 10,000 ft view, this is absolutely the case, we need more applications and we need more people to develop them. But as you delve deeper into the topic, there are several nuances.  Let’s first start with some trends driving this need for enterprise software.

Changing Demographics

A large majority of the current workforce of knowledge workers across the globe comprises of millennials who are so used to living in a digitally-abled environment. Their expectations from and habituation with mobile applications, messaging platforms, and cloud technology is incredibly high. They use applications that are AI-enabled and cloud-connected in their day-to-day life.  There is no doubt, in the face of the changing workplace demographics and the growing demands from a digitally habituated workforce, enterprise application development is experiencing a big disruptive metamorphosis. Applications are expected to be sleek, modern, always fresh and with intelligence to boot. 

A vast majority of new applications to be developed will be replacing out-dated legacy applications to make them relevant and useful in today’s day and age.

The Impact of Covid and Work from Anywhere

Enterprise digital transformation moved into top gear in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. While the industry was warming up with all the digital integrations slowly reshaping the work culture across the world over the last decade, the Covid-19 pandemic has just accelerated the process. Every industry is getting transformed, and for some digital evolution has become a matter of survival. Access to information while working remotely, eliminating bottle-necks and people dependency wherever possible, and letting software do a whole lot of heavy-lifting behind the scenes to make processes faster and more efficient – are all driving the need for new applications to be developed. Today’s digital workers are not tied down to an office, let alone a desktop. Enterprise applications need to be mobile first, accessible from anywhere and evolving over time to keep up with demands. These are all new applications that are streamlining work and improving efficiency.

The Advent of Artificial Intelligence in Everyday Enterprise Applications

Today every popular consumer application has an element of artificial intelligence – whether the recommendations on your social feed, the advertisements you see across the web, or the bots you converse with when reaching out for support. The same level of intelligence, and even more, is now expected of internal enterprise applications. Crunching large volumes of data to derive trends and predictions, machine learning to build and train complex decision making models,  natural language processing to make applications easier to use and much more.

A whole new class of application, and functionality in existing applications needs to be developed to leverage the immense power of AI.

Now let’s look at how these applications will get developed. Across these three classes of applications (and there can be many more categories to add to the list), there ain’t a single development methodology that may apply, and consequently you need a whole range of different skill sets. 

No-code approaches

At the bottom of the pyramid, you have applications that are simple to define and configure and can be built with drag-drop SaaS tools or no-code platforms by citizen developers. With the advent of a new breed of no-code development platforms, you don’t need any IT skills to build a vast majority of applications and that’s why it is called NO-CODE. It is needless to say that now-a-days every business analyst is also an application developer. We estimate over 50% of applications to be developed going forward will be of this kind, ready in days, and built by end users themselves with this no-code methodology.

Low-code approaches

In the middle of the pyramid are applications that need a bit more customization and complex business logic to be incorporated. Domain or vertical specific business tools with a range of configurability options, or new-age low-code development platforms give expert users the ability to build applications in weeks. What would have otherwise taken months of development with an army of skilled resources, now gets done by a tag team of a business user and an IT expert in weeks. We estimate 25% of new applications to be developed with this low-code methodology.

Intelligent automation platforms

And lastly comes the top of the pyramid applications that are extremely complex, with a high dose of AI/ML and other advanced technologies built in and with massive end-end integration across the enterprise. These applications will typically get built on top of intelligent automation platforms, with involvement from data engineering, business analysts and IT security teams. We estimate over 15% of all applications to be developed in the next few years will fall into this category.

Traditional custom development

And then you have the remaining 10% of applications being developed with traditional custom development approaches for several different reasons. And here, the shortfall of developers is really going to hurt.

The rise of citizen developers

Today’s new breed of no-code development platforms makes it easier than ever for Citizen developers – non-IT business users – to define, create and deploy applications with minimal involvement from IT teams. With drag-drop or point-click type of environments to build applications, traditional programming knowledge takes a backseat. Graphical user interfaces to create applications accelerate the speed, democratize the process, and ensure ease of use for non-programmers. IT teams may still be involved to evaluate and approve the development platforms to ensure requisite data security, scalability and enforce back-up and restoration rules as well as contextual access permissions.

Simple business process management applications that typically involve data collection via forms, task tracking or approval workflows are all great candidates for no-code development. Citizen developers can use visual development platforms to create applications in days. Traditional development programs tend to be time-consuming and fail to keep up with the fierce pace at which the digital requirements of workplaces are changing. No-code development provides a more agile approach to building these simple, yet essential business tools.

So, is there really a shortage of developers?

With the advent of today’s sleek, intelligent and intuitive no-code and low-code platforms like Zvolv, building complex enterprise applications is no longer the sole forte of specialized developer resources. A tag team of a business analyst and a citizen developer well trained in configuring applications via visual means, can churn out critical applications in days. IT teams have to focus on selecting the right platforms to use across their organizations, and support citizen developers in the right architectures and access permissions for data. This opens up a large pool of resources to build, upgrade and maintain enterprise applications. Only the very specialized applications that need deep customization may be relegated to the expertise of domain specific technology experts.

Intelligent Bots Taking Care Of Business

This is a story of compounding errors. Errors that we have all inadvertently introduced when filling in or manipulating data in excels files some time or the other. Often times the errors are in-consequential – a minor inconvenience at the most. We all learn from our mistakes and move on, promising to be more careful next time.


But imagine if your daily job revolves around filling in and manipulating excel data all day. No matter how careful you are, the laws of probability will eventually kick in – and you will end up with that one error that has cascading implications. And when there are hundreds of people in the organisation in the same situation, the probability keeps compounding.


A potential of 10000 incorrect decisions a year! One of our customers ran the math on the basis of number of excel files in circulation in his merchandising process, and number of times decisions were made on the basis of these files every year. Some 250 people in the organisation across zones and cities made decisions on merchandising and procurement based on executing some planning models in excel sheets several times a year, for 1000+ stores. Past sales data for similar stores, and demographic data as well as seasonal trend data was collected from various sources and populated in the excel files to run the prediction models. This was a two day exercise for every store that needed to be re-analyzed. Even assuming a less than 1% error rate due to all these manual manipulations, it could still result in 100s of incorrect decisions, causing severe economic impact to the business

This became a prime example of a process that was much better handled by an automation bot. There were 3 key benefits derived:

– The effort of aligning on the requirements for the BOT in itself forced all the disparate decision makers to standardise and agree on the logic, thresholds and algorithms. What was assumed to be a standardised excel sheet infact had many regional variations across the 250 people involved in using these sheets. The BOT requirements capture exercise forced a review and standardisation.

– The BOT executed the models in under 2 mins, while the manual exercise was more than a 2 day turn-around each time.

– The BOT accuracy is 100%, compared to 99% when humans were doing this manually. This small difference of 1% has major impact on the overall success for the business.

This is one of the 250+ bots deployed on the Zvolv platform in the last year. BOTs are replacing human activities wherever possible, with the biggest motivator being elimination of errors due to human negligence. With the reduced execution times, the BOTs also enable running some exercising much more frequently than previously possible. This helps make some of the business decisions more dynamic.

Here are a few examples of high impact BOTs recently deployed as part of Zvolv applications:

– An ML driven resource optimisation BOT that predicts the number of full-time, part-time and spilt-shift employees for every role required to run operations for over 750 supermarket outlets. Over 15% reduction in variable employee costs demonstrated.

– An automated email content extraction and re-formatting to a new payload format for a newly launched communication tool – a currently manual effort that missed its fast turn-around time expectations frequently.

– Consolidation of project spend across the portfolio of 150+ projects into unified dashboards that track planned vs actual week on week metrics. This was a multi-day manual data collection and consolidation effort done by project executives each week.

– Auto-creation of agreement documents basis template chosen and variable mapping. Reduces a 3-4hr effort of manually editing agreements for each of dozens of applicants each data, to under 1min per agreement.

Here are a few areas where intelligent BOTs can help make your business decisions more robust and operations more efficient.

– Replace excel files wherever possible with form based data input and automated BOT based data analysis

– Replace manual report generation with BOT based templatized reports- Assist in decision making by automated and real-time collection and summarisation of data from various sources

– Auto-generate documents based on standardised templates

– Run prediction algorithms based on past data and current trends, more frequently than manually possible

– Automate communications based on triggers and exceptions so no task falls through the cracks due to lack of follow-up

– Trigger reactive workflows based on data-driven triggers

– Orchestrate processes across tools, eliminate manual data transfer and status updates

This is just a sampling of what is possible with today’s intelligent BOTs. Every business needs to look at their operations in depth periodically and highlight the most impactful areas for BOT automation. A simple, nimble and fast to implement BOT framework is extremely important to get rolling fast and keep adapting as your needs change. With platforms like Zvolv, justifying the return on investment (ROI) for every BOT is now possible.

Site Selection: How Much Science Is There In Your Art

Site Selection is an essential component of business expansion and has a big impact on the success or failure of the expansion. Different verticals like Retail, Services, and Manufacturing have different needs from the sites they select. Traditionally, site selection was known as a “best-guess kind of game” but AI and analytics-driven by big data are rapidly turning it into a science. So how can you beat your competition in these exciting and competitive times, when real estate gets lapped up in the wink of an eye?

Continue reading “Site Selection: How Much Science Is There In Your Art”

Why Projects Fail: The Curious Case of the Missing Legs

The origins of Project Management as a science predates the pyramids. Many of the challenges such as bad communication, unclear goals and unrealistic due dates remain the same. Surprisingly these challenges also plague frequently repeated projects. Here’s how we’ve changed that for our clients.

Continue reading “Why Projects Fail: The Curious Case of the Missing Legs”

Organizational GTD: Declutter Virtual Workspaces Across Your Enterprise

Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allen is a proven productivity booster. But it is a personal productivity methodology, hard to deploy at an organizational level. Workflow Automation opens up the potential for Organizational GTD.

GTD allows us to manage our focus. The confidence that all of our to-dos with associated information have been captured and stored in an external system we can access whenever we need to allows us to focus on the task at hand. By breaking down our work into actual actionable and organizing them by context and priority we make sure we are maximizing the impact of time spent working. Continue reading “Organizational GTD: Declutter Virtual Workspaces Across Your Enterprise”

Does Your Enterprise Software Promote Common Sense?

Software that fits makes common sense common. Software that doesn’t challenges common sense. Here’s how you can make sure your software fits.
Enterprise software tools have spawned their own caste system. The C-Suite & VPs are at the top of the pyramid and mainly use reporting and analytics capabilities to provide direction. Middle management use reporting to manage their teams but they often also do some of their work in enterprise systems. At the bottom of the pyramid lie the executors who are responsible for most of the data entry that enables the reporting but gets very little out of enterprise software. So how surprising is it then that many implementations fail at the altar of user acceptance? Executors that are gaining little are more than happy to point out flaws.

Continue reading “Does Your Enterprise Software Promote Common Sense?”