25 May 2024

Let’s shelve the old ways of working

| The European |

Jessica Grisolia of Scandit examines the plight of the retail worker, and how their outlook can be brightened by embracing in-store tech advances

One thing is clear when reading the economic tea leaves: much of Europe is headed for slowed growth this year, with the IMF even predicting that the UK economy will shrink. This means businesses must prepare for the resulting consequences, whether these are labour shortages, reduced consumer spending or heightened scrutiny on budgets. Still dealing with many of the lingering effects of the pandemic, weathering the economic storm will require renewed focus and fresh approaches to problem solving.

This is especially true for the retail industry. Already, the British Retail Consortium has noted a downward trend in the strength of the retail workforce over the last few quarters, meaning frontline workers – many of whom have already expanded their job scopes to keep up with the demands of the omnichannel boom – could be stretched even further if measures to build resilience aren’t put in place urgently.

It will no doubt be a tricky balance to strike, but retail leaders must commit to initiatives that support their frontline workers without compromising on the customer experience or wider business ambitions. While it’s easy to look at reinforcing business resilience as a top-down effort, it’s essential – particularly in a sector so reliant on customer satisfaction and loyalty – that workers on the ground are prioritised. They will be indispensable as businesses manage the challenges ahead, and neglecting their needs could carry a heavy penalty.

Pressure on employees

Some of the largest drivers of the increased pressure on retail workers aren’t new problems; they’ve simply gone unaddressed and have been exacerbated by wider market factors. Consumer expectations are increasing, product catalogues are broader than ever before, tightened budgets are changing shoppers’ behaviour, the list goes on. Adapting to these factors cannot be delayed any longer, as a recent spate of retail casualties prove. The collapse of Made.com and the recent shuttering of Paperchase stores show that nobody is safe in the current environment and underscores just how quickly fortunes can change.

On top of these macro trends are what might seem like minor niggles: the mundane jobs many shop assistants have to carry out on a daily basis. Whether it’s logging new deliveries, taking stock, managing inventory or any number of menial tasks. These are time consuming and unfortunately, many businesses are not set up to make them any more efficient or convenient for staff. Some stores rely on multiple employees sharing a single device, for example, which means that if one unit is being used it hamstrings other members of the team. Not only does this burden employees, but depending on the device in use, it could be costly to maintain and may be reliant on old, proprietary software, making upgrading difficult.

As a result, store associates have less bandwidth to do the things that really matter. Laden with outdated processes, workers have less time to engage with customers and respond to their needs quickly – key factors that contribute towards building lasting loyalty and retaining precious footfall. These time-poor workers also lose out on the ability to communicate with each other and the head office in a timely fashion.

It’s no wonder, then, that retailers face such a constant struggle to find and keep employees, even when times are good. As of November last year, the British Retail Consortium reported a “near record” 1.19 million vacancies in the three months prior, and that was in the lead up to one of the busiest shopping periods of the year. A failure to adapt will impact already dented morale and make delivering on the promise of stellar service even more difficult.

“Leveraging the sheer computing power of smartphones has other benefits, too”

Be smart: scan for solutions

Business leaders will understandably have reservations about investing in new initiatives when budgets are already tight (and could continue to tighten). Solutions need to be cost-effective, nimble and will need to justify themselves quickly without being short-sighted.

The first thing leaders can do is look at their existing tech stack and ask themselves which devices or systems are out-of-date. Digital transformation is an ongoing process, and while it was accelerated by the pandemic, shifts to rapidly adopt new technologies long predate it.

Upgrading scanning devices to include smart data capture technology allows interaction with a multitude of data sources – not just barcodes, but also text, IDs, or even objects – and provides actionable insights at the point of data collection. For example, time-consuming tasks like logging hundreds of items in a stockroom can be shifted to technology, as smart data capture solutions can enable a device to scan multiple items at once, and provide in-the-moment information on stock count. With accurate information in hand, workers can make informed decisions faster, and businesses benefit from workflow automation at scale. Leading suppliers of smart data capture can also add augmented reality overlays that display real-time information about an item in front of them, meaning retail workers can minimise errors by having all the information they need to act at their fingertips in an instant.

If retailers choose to use a smartphone as their smart data capture device, they can also leverage the wide range of functionality they offer. In this case, a single device offers the opportunity to become a clienteling station, mobile point of sale, stock availability tool and of course – a communications vehicle! Without compromising workflow, employees are better able to access the information like inventory levels or restock dates, ensuring they can provide the best customer service possible – key when looking to forge lasting loyalty with shoppers.

Using smart data capture also means that many of the more laborious store operation processes such as receiving, price and promotion label execution or stocktaking can be streamlined and automated, saving employees from having to input data manually across various platforms.

This frees workers up, both from a time and energy perspective, to do all the things that customers remember about great service. They can be more attentive, more hands-on and can take their time in answering customers’ questions and helping them make the best decision. By essentially delegating tedious tasks to technology, they’re able to carve out extra time to tend to shoppers.

This point about making workers feel valued cannot be understated. A global survey conducted by Meta last year found that 84% of workers were happiest when they felt included at work, and in a sector that already struggles with retention the importance of employee morale and happiness cannot be ignored.

“Making workers feel valued cannot be understated”

Evolving omnichannel strategy

With more and more businesses evolving their omnichannel strategies, as they revisit the blending of in store, online, mobile and other customer experiences, the companies looking towards new investments that can boost multiple channels will be the most attractive.

Smart data capture isn’t limited to managing store operations, as many retailers including Scandit customers Coop in Denmark or Metro in Germany have already integrated it into their customer facing applications.

In these implementations, shoppers can scan and pay for products using their own smartphones, eliminating the need for scores of checkout machines and amalgamating the physical and digital shopping experiences, or even scan products to read reviews, understand nutritional data or product provenance and sustainability information.

In Metro stores, customers can use augmented reality to see detailed product information and promotions simply by pointing their camera at the shelves. As they shop, they can track the total value of their shopping basket at any time. For a market of cost-conscious consumers, this level of real-time support is invaluable.

The convergence of multiple sales routes will only continue as innovative channels like live stream or metaverse shopping gain popularity. Workers cannot be expected to take on the greater workload that expansion requires, without the necessary help. Smart data capture technology and tools better support staff, and customers get better access to the information they need to make the best purchasing decision.

All that’s left is for businesses to catch on, and time is running out – or they will pay the price with their people.


Jessica Grisolia is Senior Industry Solutions Manager at smart data capture experts Scandit.

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