Continued downward pressure on prices and increased customer demand for exceptional in-store experiences means that retailers must create efficiencies and cost savings to protect margins. In practical terms this means finding ways to operate that are faster, more accurate and allow you to respond to customers more quickly and effectively.
One way to achieve these goals is through automation. Low-level, repetitive tasks are ideal cases for automation, freeing in store staff to spend more time with customers to deliver an improved service.
Automation also benefits in store staff, offering increased flexibility to help them get more done each day and reducing the need for overtime. Using automation, employers can solve skills shortages too because the skills barrier can be lowered when tasks are offloaded to technology.
But how do you decide which processes should be automated? There are two obvious candidates – checkout area automation, and e-commerce fulfilment automation.
Checkout area automation
EPoS, barcode scanners, computerised scales and contactless payment card terminals have helped to significantly improve throughput at the checkout, but there are still gains to be made. Cash remains an important payment method, but it requires more time for supporting processes, such as counting float, sales and safe float. Some retail firms are now investing in cash management systems that can streamline the cash processes. These systems also increase reporting accuracy helping to reduce losses and the time taken for back-end accounting operations.
The trend towards self-service checkouts will continue too. Almost entirely automated, the checkout experience is generally quicker and easier for customers. Using automation in this way increases staff efficiency too, as fewer attendants are required to oversee the checkout area.
Automation can also help to improve sales processes for specific categories of goods. As a high-tax product, tobacco is relatively valuable, making it an attractive target for thieves. Tobacco automation management systems can be integrated into the self-checkout experience, automatically verifying buyer rights before dispensing the goods.
Using technology to control the sale of tobacco increases inventory accuracy, reduces opportunity for theft, and allows retailers to prove they are complying with legal restrictions for each sale.
E-commerce fulfilment automation
As well as improving efficiency on the shop floor, retailers are under pressure to streamline back-end operations for their e-commerce services. Typically, the front end of the system – where shoppers place their orders and make payment – is heavily automated. Processing, picking, packing and shipping those orders remains extremely manually-intensive however.
Efficiency gains begin at the order picking process. By implementing a picking management system, you can ensure that movement in the warehouse is reduced by picking in parallel by product categories for instance. The system calculates the quickest route around the warehouse to increase efficiency and reduce basic picking mistakes.
Concerns about being at home to receive the delivery of an order have helped to increase uptake of Click & Collect schemes, allowing customers to pick up their order at their convenience. Often the customer comes in store, presents proof of purchase, and a member of staff then retrieves the order from storage while the customer waits around. The system works, but you need to divert staff from other tasks to operate the desk.
Again, this process can be automated. The order could be placed in a locker ready for collection by the shopper at their convenience. They are emailed a keycode to open the locker themselves, making the process completely self-service – quicker for them, cheaper for the retailer.
Everyone wins with automation
Automation delivers clear efficiency and productivity benefits for retailers – but everyone wins in the long term. Being more efficient makes the shopping experience less stressful for customers for instance, and cost efficiencies at the back-end could be fed back in the form of price reductions for shoppers.
In some cases, the gains may be relatively modest, but they quickly add up on a cumulative basis. As a result, you should expect to see automation become more prevalent and prominent in all forms of retail.
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