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Can in-store tech solve staff shortages?

In the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global labor market saw massive disruptions, with the retail industry taking a direct hit. Following the shutdowns and the layoffs came what was dubbed “the Great Resignation”, in which millions of workers across the globe handed in their notice. Since then, retailers have been scrambling to address staffing shortages, with many turning to in-store tech for support.

Will in-store tech solve the staffing issue? In short, no — but, it can help to greatly lessen the burden retailers feel as a result. There are several approaches to adopting in-store tech, but the two main ones are the fully autonomous approach, and the semi-autonomous approach. Let’s look at what each approach looks like in action.

Fully autonomous stores— the future of brick-and-mortar?

Fully autonomous stores may seem like a sci-fi fantasy, but aspects of this concept are actually more common than you may think. Nearly half of retailers use QR-codes or kiosks, with another 26% planning to add such solutions within the next 12 months. The contactless technology has the ability to provide customers with product information, ratings, reviews and promotional offers via their own mobile devices. This is a huge relief for thinned-out store staff who would typically need to assume these responsibilities. 

Other technologies supporting totally autonomous stores have become increasingly popular and versatile, such as self-checkout which a third of retailers use. However, deployments have been concentrated in small-footprint selling spaces where transaction speed and convenience are paramount, such as sports stadium concessions, airports and convenience stores. Larger retailers, like Whole Foods, have started to deploy Just Walk Out technology for a totally autonomous experience. Though limited, this indicates that both retailers and solution providers are looking to cashierless solutions as a potential long-term answer to the labor crisis. 

For the moment, however, cashierless/unattended brick-and-mortar stores are a relative rarity, and they do raise some red flags for retailers. Not every attempt to use self-service technology as a way to stretch the thinning ranks of store labor works out. The supermarket chain Wegman’s recently discontinued a scan-and-go style app it had introduced in 2019 because it contributed too much to losses from shoplifting. The self-service stores also fall when it comes to the retail experience. For smaller grab-and-go situations, shoppers may be keen to get in and out, but for more specific purchases like clothes, furniture, or electronics, associates are very important. The human connection is still a huge part of the retail experience, even as technology is more commonplace. 

Retail tech should be in the hands of those that need it most

For now, the foreseeable future of the physical store relies on associates to support it. However, in-store tech can help bridge the gap for thinned-out store teams. In fact, arming associates with mobile technology is becoming much more common in retail stores— 71% of retailers currently use it, and another 11% plan to add it within the next 12 months. 

Solutions like mobile POS— which nearly half of retailers already use— can reduce workloads for associates by incorporating checkout into the sales process. Other modern-day challenges, like those with the supply chain, can also benefit from mobile technology. Over half of retailers equip associates with mobile devices to order out-of-stock products from online channels. The technology makes the day-to-day functions of the associate faster and easier, so they can keep customers moving, even with a diminished staff. 

The impact of the semi-autonomous store can be felt by shoppers and store teams alike. At the customer level, the effects of staffing shortages aren’t reflected in the shopping experience. And associates are able to complete their duties without feeling overwhelmed due to lack of staff. The changes also greatly affect the value and support they feel from the retailer, and the successes they have on the floor. When the associates feel important and supported, they are more likely to seek continued growth with the retailer.

To learn more about  the challenges retailers are facing, and how to adapt to face them, check out the 2022 Store Operations Benchmark Survey

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