Technology has revolutionised retail in the last decade or so. It is influencing retail consumption like never before and is driving the change to make the shopping experience faster, more convenient, transparent and reliable. Humanoid Intelligence, Artificial intelligence, Bots, Cloud, Data, Magic Mirrors, Beacons…every day there are additions to the list of new technologies in the retail industry.
Phygital and Omnichannel retail, digital alterations, cashless self-check-outs are all making life easier at shopping malls and stores. In this technological era, brands which are not paying attention and keeping up with the latest in tech are losing popularity, business and consumers every day.
Retailers are investing huge amounts of capital in developing and implementing IT solutions and software to influence customers’ buying behaviour. Some brands are globally transforming themselves into nearly human-less stores.
The first supermarket self-checkout system was installed in 1992 in the Price Chopper Supermarket in New York by the man who invented the system, Dr. Howard Schneider. Amazon’s new futuristic convenience store– Amazon Go – has no lines, no waiting time and little-to-no human interaction and is the new talking point of the retail industry.
The Human Touch
While replacing manpower with technology is not a new concept in retail, the human touch of the business cannot be completely ignored. People have always been the appeal of the retail industry. Every shopper wants a special treatment in a store. They want to talk to retail associates who are attentive and well-informed about the product, while helping them choose what suits their requirements the most. Retail staff – apart from providing customers with a positive experience – also plays a vital role in advising on delivery options or even in helping them use tablets in-store to order out-of-stock items. They are trained to offer the highest level of support, along every step of the customer journey.
A report titled Retail Perceptions by Interactions, the retail solutions and experiential marketing unit of retail branding and sourcing firm Daymon, surveyed more than 1,000 adult shoppers, and found that while 84 percent expect retailers to use technology to improve the shopping experience, 62 percent prefer to be greeted in-store by a real person.
“We, at Danube Home, know and believe that success is never bought from outside, it must be home grown. That is why we prioritize the wellbeing and work satisfaction of our employees and along with that, we invest our best time and effort in encouraging, supporting and promoting the social needs and aspirations of our people. We facilitate maximum internal communication between employees and management and encourage a very open feedback-based work culture. Danube Home’s workplace environment is friendly and welcoming, and we lend an ear to every employee who can add value to our existing pool of knowledge. Our interactions are both formal and informal, so much so that, our people feel at home, because we believe, in order to win the hearts of customers, we must first build a home in the hearts of our employees,” says Shubhojit Mahalanobis, General Manager, Danube Home.
“From its inception, Easybuy has been an organisation that was focused on its people. Easybuy has adopted established HR practices of its parent company, Landmark Group, and adapted them to its fast-paced, agile and franchise-based business model. A testimony to the importance that Easybuy places on its people is evident from the fact that every employee – whether in self-owned or franchised stores – is a part of the same engagement program and get the same benefits and HR initiatives,” says Anand Aiyer, SVP & Business Head – Easybuy (Max Retail Division).
“To build a strong corporate brand, you need brand ambassadors – employees who are thoroughly engaged, connected and committed. It is our constant endeavor to empower each of our 1,395 employees to take strategic business decisions. We believe that when our employees are at their ‘authentic best selves’ in the workplace, productivity and retention increase. We help our employees unearth their greatest strengths and integrate them into everything they do as we believe that this is essential to our success and the success of our team,” explains Neha Shah, Assistant General Manager-Marketing- Pepe Jeans India.
“The most crucial aspect of any business is its people. They are the driving force that keeps the wheel churning. Humans are the most important, yet the most complex, facet of any organisation and this also lies true for our company. We have a driven, ambitious and dedicated team of employees who align themselves to the company’s vision and become an integral part of the brands success,” says Sandeep Goenka, Chief Operating Officer, Bagzone Lifestyles Pvt Ltd.
“At LOTS Wholesale Solutions, we believe the human element is a critical factor in executing our business ideas and strategy. We are working towards building a culture of openness and service excellence, with our philosophy of ‘Victory’ at the core of everything we do. Victory stands for seven key values – Vision, Integrity, Challenge, Teamwork, Ownership, Result-orientation and believing Yes we can. These values not only define the organisation but our employees and their interactions with the consumers. Our purpose also inspires us to enhance people’s lives by working closely with suppliers and farmers to produce environment-friendly products and to improve food safety supplies. One of the key pillars of Makro Capabilities Engine for sustainable mutual growth is local love, which empowers us to source a large majority of assortments locally and help our partners grow,” adds Sameer Singh, Director -Operations, Business Development & Expansion, LOTS Wholesale Solutions.
“At Shingora, we value our employees. To transform the lives and to provide quality education to underprivileged girl children of economically disadvantaged families, Shingora– which prides itself on not only adhering to all social and employee rules – runs a foundation called the ‘Shingora Family Foundation’. This foundation advocates for and educates the underprivileged girl child. At present, the foundation provides education to over 50 girls,” says Amit Jain, Managing Director, Shingora.
“We believe that we need to do our bit in contributing to the ultimate well-being of the society in large and connect to every individual within the organisation with the same message. Therefore we treat our employees as important pillars of the business and even Sudhakar Pai, CMD, Kurl-on happily involves himself in every problem related to the staff making Kurl-on one of the most popular and loved brands in India,” states Ashutosh Vaidya, Chief Marketing Officer, Kurl-on.
“At Soch, our belief is ‘happy employees lead to happy customers’. More than 32 percent of our employees have been with us for more than three years. Other than salary and incentives, employee benefits at Soch include paying school fees, contributing to big personal milestones like marriage, term and medical insurance, leave policy etc. We strongly believe in grooming internal talent and giving opportunities to people in the company. Many of our store managers and area managers joined us as CCAs and have grown with Soch though performance and learning,” explains Vinay Chatlani, Director and CEO, Soch India.
Technology vs Humans
Even as technology has started playing a larger role in day-to-day retail operations, the most successful retailers understand that employees are the connecting tissue in retail experience. The risk of not getting the human element right is significant. As per Pricewaterhouse Cooper’s CIS survey, 56 percent of shoppers will turn away from their favorite products or brands after bad experiences with brands, and 32 percent will walk out from the store with just one bad experience.
“Technology has revolutionized retail in the last decade or so. Staying up-to-date with technology in the retail industry is essential to stay ahead of the curve. Retail operations are increasingly dependent on information technology but continue to require the ‘human touch’. Digital tracking, interactivity and immediacy are important tools, but physical retail remains the lynchpin of a brand’s experience and its relationship with its customers. These days, innovations such as smart screens, magic mirrors and iPads enabled with product information are the newest offerings are specifically made to get the customers’ attention. They offer personalised content to shoppers. However when it comes to fashion retail, customers continue to seek advice and assistance from retail store associates. We believe that humans empowered by technology can exceed expectations at every point of the customer service model; both online and offline. Technology alone cannot consistently provide good customer service, but technology designed to enhance human experiences can exceed expectations consistently,” says Neha Shah.
“Technology is used to upgrade the work flow and bring advancement, but the human touch is something that makes selling personal and believable, approachable and there is a trust factor,” states Amit Jain.
“Technology has its role to play in retail. However, humans are social animals too and they look for emotional well-being more than momentary transactional happiness. So, while we use technology, we should not forget softer aspects which we feel will drive growth in future,” adds Ashutosh Vaidya.
“Every coin has two sides. We can’t deny the fact that technology has become a major necessity for retail operations at stores, but this doesn’t mean that the human touch is losing its charm and importance. I personally believe that humans and technology are parallel for successful business operations,” says Ravi Prakash Singh, General Manager- Retail Operations, Citykart Private Limited.
“Digital tools enable retailers to provide the right information to relevant customers. They help us collect important data which can enhance customer experience, and these tools make the billing experience smoother and faster. Digital tools are more mobile driven which help to target the right customers. Though people may get eliminated at a few stages of the retail shopping experience, the store team is required as they are a key human link to customers. In offline shopping, customers actively seek out the human touch and the satisfaction from human involvement is higher. The complexities of human nature can be studied and understood by a trained store staff which provides insights that technology can miss out,” adds Sandeep Goenka.
What Retailers Need to Do
There is no use of implementing technologies in retail stores just for the sake of it. Technology is a necessity, but it depends entirely on the business and the brand. Retailers musk ask themselves some important questions before making the big move towards investing in tech support one of them being – Is the technology you want to work with embracing those values that your brand stands for or is it just overshadowing them?
Th e most important thing in building and preserving strong customer relationships is trust. If customers do not recognise your brand value anymore you will lose their trust and loyalty.
The overall reaction to technology in retail is positive from the customer’s side with plenty of customers already familiar with technologies like AI or VR. Even though a huge part of customers still cannot call these technologies by name, the expectation of VR and AR assisting them when they enter the store is growing continuously. Paradoxically, it seems like more the technology invades an industry, the higher the premium on maintaining a personal touch in dealing with customers and employees. It’s wise to find a balance between technology and humans and let them work alongside each other.
The human touch can make a big difference in the current retail environment that has become too transactional, promotional, and robotic. Think of ways in which an inspired sales team can put a real smile on your customer’s face. That is still the best indicator of a job well done.
Building a Future Together
Technology and human touch have a future together – the word that fits here is Phygital. Phygital refers to a retail environment in which physical and digital experiences merge together seamlessly and complement each other in order to offer the consumer a single, positive, integrated experience. While modern consumers are actively looking for Omnichannel experiences, offline shopping remains important for a large number of them – especially families. Some like to hit stores out of habit, while others shop offline simply because they enjoy the activity.
“We strongly agree with this statement as one can make processes faster. Shingora has introduced technology like Zentrade, TAB Billing and Slack etc. to bring in that advancement. We have also introduced social media platforms, website maintenance, flex, banners and touchscreens to showcase the look of the product really give an edge to make brand language clear and easy to convey. Shingora focuses on hiring intelligent staff at all store locations with proper training sessions being provided on regular basis to bring in the faith in the brand. It makes selling easy and spontaneous due to direct conversations that really help customers understand the brand language easily,” states Amit Jain.
“Technology today is helping retailers predict customer preferences, augmented reality enables customers to try on clothes, but even as technology has enhanced the shopping experience, consumers often look forward to the human element in their shopping/ retail experience. As innovative tools start to gain significance in the in-store space, it is important to understand that employees will continue play the role of connecting the brand to the consumer. Technology will remain central to the retailers’ ability to understand and predict customer behavior. But none of these high-tech capabilities would be possible without people. Whether on the front lines or behind the scenes, it takes an army of specialised staff – floor associates, product designers, supply chain specialists, distribution center workers, and more, all operating with the help of technology – to delight customers with products and services,” adds Neha Shah.
“Technology has an impact on every business these days and the retail industry has also come a long way with the implementation of disruptive technology. We believe that great customer experience comes from blending technology with a personalised touch. Creativity, personalisation, and emotional connection are unique human skills that ensure customer loyalty, a critical requirement for any business to succeed. While machines are making life simpler, there are many situations which are best handled manually. Having said that, it is inevitable for technology and human touch to reconcile and coexist in the fast-changing world,” says Sameer Singh.
“We leverage technology in our business to predict customer preferences through their purchase pattern, this helps our team serve them better. We use geo-tagging technology for customers to understand their requirements and buying patterns in a particular catchment area. The combination of both and evolution of technology can bring a revolution in the industry in near future,” he adds.
“Digital tools are not the ultimate goal. They are the means to help achieve ultimate consumer satisfaction. Brands need to move from being super transactional and address these needs. Technology is the means and not the goal. Humans will continue to dream, and technology would help us achieve those dreams,” says Ashutosh Vaidya.
“The motto of Danube HOME is ‘Change is the Only Constant’. We need to be ready to adapt to any new change the industry undergoes. To remain a leading retailer, we need to continuously hone our internal skills and learn about newer technologies to stay ahead of the competition.
We believe in the need to change the working environment for the better through incorporating latest technological advancements.We are living in a fast-paced world where every second day a new technology is breaking the status quo. We cannot remain immune to what is happening outside.
Therefore, we believe in creating a critical balance between technologies or automation of processes and personal human touch that ultimately helps us to achieve higher levels of customer satisfaction,” says Shubhojit Mahalanobis.
“We believe that technology should be looked at as an enabler that improves the efficiency and reachability for an HR function. For a business like Easybuy, it isn’t viable to have an HR representative at each store since stores are spread across the country. In such a scenario, technology bridges the gap and enables a healthy communication between stores and corporate offices. We believe that avenues should be available to employees to reach out to us, and at Easybuy through various channels such as the use of Facebook Workplace, we ensure that employees feel engaged and connected to the company, wherever they work from. Easybuy leverages on technology greatly in the learning and development function as training is an on-going process,” explains Anand Aiyer.
“For us at Soch, technology is an enabler. We use it to aid our store teams to resolve customer issues, and also delight them. We have launched video catalogs which help our store teams showcase in-store merchandise better, aiding conversion. We have also launched Omnichannel retailing – with the capability to deliver sizes and styles not limited by the store’s physical inventory. This has helped ensure better consumer satisfaction and minimize sales loss. It is our store staff that brings in the human touch and ensures customer delight. The future store is a combination of technology with human touch. In fact, we are preparing to take this to the next level at our stores, by equipping all our staff with hand held devices which enable and help them to solve consumer issues in stores quicker and more efficiently,” says Manohar Chatlani.
“The Indian retail industry is still lagging behind in adapting to technological trends. To bring change, the store team will have to be receptive to transformation as their role will become very dynamic. With the technology changing at such a fast pace, there will always be a certain set of customers who would not be comfortable using it. It definitely takes human effort to explain the system or a new technology innovation to a first-time user,” says Sandeep Goenka.
How to Prepare Your Staff
The expectation from frontend retail staff is huge, so it is necessary to keep them fully prepared and trained. A trained employee is as valuable as a digital and technical medium. To ensure that the employees are fully trained and ready, retailers must ensure:
– Retail associates have access to the same technologies as customers, such as tablets
– Retail staff has instant access to complete realtime inventory and product information
– They are allowed to access customer information that enables them to provide personalised service
– Holding regular training sessions regarding new products, in-store-technologies and services (including those that are only available online)
– Providing staff across board – front-end and back-end – with similar capabilities and training Enabling retail staff to communicate with consumers digitally – for example, via live chat or text messages
“We hold a training session for our employees every quarter by a qualified trainer. The focus is on qualitative and quantitative aspects of retail such as how to increase footfall, customer enrollment, sales numbers, ASP, ABV and basket size. Also, we motivate staff with gifts and incentives so that they can achieve the company’s targets as well as their personal goals. In addition to this our retail teams and store managers are always available to help and guide them. As a result, after a few days of training, we see positive changes in operations,” says Ravi Prakash Singh.
“At Pepe Jeans, the philosophy has always been to keep the end customer at the forefront; it’s about giving the consumer a complete shopping experience. These days, the model wherein store associates only serve as salespeople just won’t cut it anymore. As retailers we need to offer something more than just the ability to purchase merchandise. In an age of more and more connectivity through the use of the Internet, what the customer craves for is something real. When the customer has an amazing experience with the brand, it facilitates an emotional connection that in most cases leads to loyalty, high retention and high referral rates. Before the launch of a new collection every season, our store staff is thoroughly trained to identify key styles for different body types, and then deliver a unique and personal element to the customers’ shopping experience. They are also encouraged to exercise creativity with trends, accessories, and different fabrics to have fun with the customer and be flexible in their approach,” explains Neha Shah.
“Easybuy operates in a start-up culture and being a unique business format, it is imperative for new employees who come from varied organisational backgrounds to align to the brand’s vision, its key components of work culture thought processes and ways of working.
In-store training focuses on 5 core aspects that drive business:
– Development of Self
– Customer Service
Class Room Training (CRT) and On-Job Training (OJT) are conducted, with an emphasis on a practical and holistic approach to ensure that the training program provides clear expectations and is effective. It encompasses video-based training, presentations, team building activities, role plays, etc. A refresher training program is planned within three months to further reinforce the learnings of the core aspects. To add as aspiration value to the roles, the training also includes discussions with role models and an orientation on career progression in the organisation. Further objective assessments are done before and after the training program to measure the training effectiveness,” says Anand Aiyer.
“At Kurl-on, we have a three-day induction program which is must for every employee at the time of joining. The employees are inducted on the job within 30 days of the training program and then spend some time shadowing our trained team,” says Ashutosh Vaidya.
“We believe in in-depth and comprehensive training of our employees in order to provide the best customer experience at the store. The entire staff is trained on diverse topics for different segments. The hiring of the staff happens three months before opening a store. These three months are packed with rigorous cross functional trainings. In fact, to make the staff well versed in operations, managers and section managers are taken to Thailand for a fortnight of training at our parent company, Siam Makro. Rest of the staff goes through a mandatory training of at least three weeks in India where they train cross functionally regarding compliances, standard operating procedures (SOPs), product knowledge, behaviour training etc., to provide a seamless and flawless experience to our customers. This training is done before opening of the store, as well as, as and when new changes are brought in, for instance, a new standard operating procedure, a new software or change of staff ’s duties,” adds Sameer Singh.
“We value our employees’ professional and personal development. We believe in developing team bonding and increasing the positivity quotient in Individuals and teams. We conduct multiple levels of team bonding, product, process and motivational trainings at Danube Home. In order to motivate our employees to push themselves forward and strive to develop new skills, we use a perfect blend of internal and external training programs. At Danube Home, we invite external trainers and coaches to bring in a whole other perspective and provide new knowledge that would have otherwise gone amiss and share it all with our employees at different levels of management. From the higher management levels to the floor, we have designed and applied different training and coaching programs to ensure the growth of our employees,” says Shubhojit Mahalanobis.
“And we do not just focus on our front-line employees; we also focus on the training and development needs of our backend support staff by chalking out a career plan for them while imparting successful and career changing programs like
‘Knock, Power sellers and Smile’, he adds.
“We take training very seriously while making it a fun and interactive session for the employees at the store. Th e main features of the training program are an educative session on how to read a customer, to understand their basic requirement. It is about already knowing what is on the customer’s mind, his needs, his purpose of being at the store and gauging his behaviour, intent and affinity towards the brand,” says Sandeep Goenka.
“Our staff is also trained on how to attend to the customer to increase the level of satisfaction and to deal with complaints. Another key aspect of training is teaching how to cross sell and up sell by throwing light on the products and its features. The product team explains the highlights and unique selling propositions to the store team. The frequency of training from regional heads is on monthly basis whereas training from visual merchandising and product team is received quarterly. Catalogues are provided to the store team for every season, category launch,” he concludes.
In an age, when prices can be compared, and orders can be placed via smartphones, there are almost an equal number of customers who still want human interactions in-store. And this cannot be ignored.