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The rise of digital workers in retail

There’s nothing like the eye watering figures from this year’s Singles Day (11 November) to remind us just how rapid the changes to the global retail sector have been – Alibaba rang up sales of US$12.01 billion in the first hour alone, before racking up sales of over US$30.5 billion.

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While Australian participants in Singles Day remain low, Australian sourced goods are routinely in the top five countries for goods sold. Faced with slick global competitors, Australian retailers must quickly adopt innovative technologies and harness insightful data sources to sell more, buy better, turn faster, increase efficiencies and reduce wastage.

Retail is the final link in a complicated supply chain that brings an unparalleled selection of products to every consumer. That supply chain isn’t only very complicated, it’s phenomenally repetitive and must be supported by many other business critical functions that constantly erode profit margins.

Anything that can reduce complexity and cost, automate repetition and streamline supporting activities, offers a beacon of hope to struggling retailers desperately wanting to impress their consumers while improving overall retention.

For a number of years, retailers have recognised that a major transformation to digitise business models will likely ensure their survival. This is still true today, but the exigencies of the real-world dictate that it can’t simply be a case of “out with the old; in with the new.”

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) hints towards a new paradigm for retailers, offering the opportunity to quickly marry new digital systems with existing legacy systems, providing a lifeline on their journey to digitised business models.

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Introducing Digital Workers

RPA offers retailers the opportunity to employ automated digital workers to augment and complement their human employees. These digital workers automate time-consuming, mundane and repetitive tasks, freeing up human talent to focus on higher value activities that serve to differentiate the retailer, enhance the customer journey and inspire greater customer loyalty.

This type of automation can be deployed throughout the whole retail process, from the supply chain all the way through to the shop floor.

In particular, RPA automates a vast array of supply chain activities, such as procure-to-pay, order-to-cash, category management, spend analytics, delivery logistics and more. It’s also having a profound impact on a broad range of supporting functions in both the front and back office, particularly financial accounting, new product or client set up, customer support, HR, payroll, management reporting and store maintenance.

There are a few other key areas that RPA is really helping to deliver positive outcomes:

Fraud detection – automated “held order” processes can investigate potential fraudulent ordering. These fraud prevention measures can have a positive impact on customer satisfaction, trust and commitment to the brand, while liberating staff to focus on more valuable detection tasks.

Price matching – pre and post-sale processes can be entirely managed by a digital workforce to ensure the most competitive prices. Staff can then focus on improving business exceptions such as prices from retailers that aren’t currently on existing lists, or dealing with complex or high priority customer requests.

Returned goods – the inter-branch transfer process that handles returned products can be automated and accelerated. Streamlining this process prevents writing-off stock and reduces handling and transit costs, while generating more revenue.

By having digital workers take on these types of tasks, retailers can focus their human talent on what really matters – customers. Employees can get relevant customer insights in a matter of seconds to deliver personalised services.

Retailers can expand processes that can be automated across all interaction channels and platforms. They gain greater operational agility and customer responsiveness, making it easier to adapt to spikes in market demand.

Dan Ternes is chief technology officer for Blue Prism APAC.