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How automation helps retail remain agile in a post Covid world

Retail operations are more expensive to run in a post Covid world due to the extra demands of cleaning, managing access to achieve social distancing and maximum occupation numbers, and even conducting temperature checks too. And, all this on top of lower footfall and sales than usual.

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As the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention and the current crisis has triggered innovative deployment of automation.

It’s a significant additional cost to deploy a colleague to stand at the door, so clever footfall counter vendors have repurposed how they use their customer count data to link how many customers are in store to a traffic light system on the external doors. Aldi in the UK have been one of the first to use it with customers entering freely if the light is green and waiting at the entrance if red. In Australia, many retailers have gone even further and used their apps to create virtual queues to minimise lines and create a better customer experience.

There has been a global acceleration in the adoption of existing technology that enables customers to scan their shopping straight into their bag and pay via the retailer’s app. Already in test with Woolworths and 7-Eleven, it is a win-win in reducing colleague time at checkouts and offering customers a way to reduce contact with others while shopping. It’s another example of retailers using their apps to enhance customer experience and offer a convenience that customers willingly adopt.

The two parts of a retail operation that take up the most colleague time are serving customers and managing stock. Self-scanning and increased use of self-checkout are helping reduce time at tills, so what can help with stock? The automation that can have the biggest impact is RFID, Radio frequency Identification. This is a system where every stock item has a unique tag that is read by a radio frequency scanner, so the retailer knows exactly where everything is and how many of each item and size is available. For example, to log items on the stock file as they arrive at the back door, just point the scanner at the boxes and you have a 100% accurate inventory update. The same approach works for stock counts and creating fill up lists. Embraced by global fashion brands known for their frequent range changes such as H&M, Zara, RFID has been slower to take off in Australia. The challenge in accessing time saving and accuracy benefits is the initial investment in getting the whole operation ready for RF combined with the ongoing cost of RFID tickets.

This could be the time for RFID. Online has seen a huge boost over the past weeks and stores that have the capability to use their stock file to enable click and reserve and can offer stock online from both their stores and warehouse have a big advantage. RFID is the obvious solution to help, giving near perfect inventory accuracy and visibility of lines across the whole estate.

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Automaton that could help retailers navigate a changing shopping patterns is already part of staff planning systems. The KPIs produced include “Schedule Effectiveness” which tells you how well your colleague deployment matches customer demand and workload. Given the changes in customer flow and trade volumes, tried and tested employee rota patterns won’t be the most efficient now and schedule effectiveness data could be invaluable in optimising how and when colleagues are deployed.

Covid 19 driven trading changes are creating an opportunity to review your operation and make investments in automation. Just make sure any automation drives value. Ask yourselves, does this genuinely improve customers’ experiences and measure the impact on your operating costs to avoid an unexpected sting in the tail.

Simon Hedaux is founder and CEO of Rethink Productivity