Report: Mobile tech’s untapped potential

The idea that sales staff on the shop floor are privy to key customer insights and information that would aid strategic decision-making if only it could be conveyed to the head office is pervasive in retail.

You can see it in the CEO listening tours undertaken by the likes of Myer’s John King to gather feedback from frontline workers, and the Shark Tank-style pitch-fests put on by
companies like Naked Wines to crowd source innovative ideas from different parts of the business.

Some retailers aim to take these one-off initiatives a step further and enable a constant flow of communication between store staff and head office using smartphones and mobile apps. And new research from Microsoft Australia suggests this could be a competitive advantage.

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“One of the biggest differentiators for retailers is the first-hand insight they receive from store staff about the behaviour of customers, what they’re asking for and what they’re not asking for,” Ian Heard, modern workplace lead at Microsoft Australia, told Inside Retail.

“These are massive information gaps for organisations today,” he said.

Creating a feedback loop

Heard sees two main opportunities for retail store staff to use mobile devices on the shop floor: to share information about customer behaviour and feedback with managers, and to consume information about new products or trends from head office. This is based on the findings of a survey that Microsoft Australia recently commissioned, which asked 1000 adults working across health, retail, manufacturing and the public sector about the current challenges and pressures they face in the workplace.

Close to three-quarters of the retail business managers (73 per cent) and more than two-thirds of frontline workers (67 per cent) surveyed said that meeting financial performance targets and maintaining a healthy profit margin was their biggest job pressure.

And 41 per cent of retail managers and 61 per cent of frontline workers said they wanted clearer communication from leadership teams to help alleviate this pressure. According to Heard, real-time information about product and category sales across the store network is one of the key insights that frontline workers want to have at their fingertips. This information could create a “feedback loop” with head office and give store staff an opportunity to take action if they are not meeting targets.

“Someone at a store in Sydney could see if their counterpart in Melbourne was selling significantly more or less in a certain category, and reach out to them,” he said. But research suggests that most retail workers don’t have access to the latest technology to take advantage of these opportunities.

Only 35 per cent of retail managers and 37 per cent of frontline workers surveyed said their organisations provided employees with the latest devices for their workplaces. As Heard observed, retailers have been much quicker to roll out customer-facing technology than to update their internal IT systems and applications. This could potentially alienate employees, especially younger digital natives.

“Great customer service can only be delivered by motivated and engaged staff, and they require modern technology now,” he said.

Eliminating the middleman

Amart Furniture is one retailer that has embraced smartphones and mobile apps to communicate with employees more effectively. Previously, messages from the head office were relayed to store managers, who informed store staff. But this sometimes led to messages being diluted, according to Amart Furniture general manager Nick Shelton.

“[The] team members who are the receivers of that information are not always aware about what we are trying to achieve or what direction we’re heading in,” he said.
There has been a noticeable shift since the retailer started using smartphones and mobile apps to communicate with its nearly 2000 staff, Shelton said.

“It’s enabled us to be able to share the great things about our organisation, but also allowed our team to communicate back up to us about how they’re experiencing certain systems and processes, and allowed us to modify those as well,” he said.

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