How to Overcome Automation Aversion and Improve Your Retail Processes
Earlier this year, retailers caught a glimpse of the future in Mary Meeker’s annual internet trends report. Meeker predicted a grim year for brick-and-mortars, an increased emphasis on mobile, and a digital push from big brands that so far have struggled in the e-commerce space. However, the report largely neglected the role automation will play in retail, a trend I believe can be equally transformative in the industry’s evolution.
Process automation isn't a new concept. Time- and cost-saving technologies have been integrated into supply chain and inventory systems for years, and the benefits are now available for other aspects of the retail workflow as well. However, many companies are reluctant to adapt.
Objections to Automation
One reason for this reticence is the conflation of automating processes with replacing human workers. Automation’s primary function isn't to run people out of their jobs — it’s to help them do their jobs better.
For instance, assortment planning often occurs across disparate spreadsheets. A tech platform can integrate all of that data in a centralized location, making it easier for planners to assess customer demands in different stores and adjust inventories accordingly.
Retailers also hold out on implementing new technologies because past implementations might have been tedious and challenging. And even though automation will add functionality through new solutions that integrate with legacy systems, leaders are often uncertain about exactly how those solutions will fit with their existing infrastructures.
Then there’s the issue of standards. No universal approaches to artificial intelligence, virtual or augmented realities, or Internet of Things technologies currently exist. Retailers must identify vendor partners before they can integrate these into their processes. Too often, automation appears to be more trouble than it’s worth.
Why (and How) You Should Automate Anyway
Despite these challenges, retailers can benefit from automation no matter their existing technology stacks or constraints. Automated checkout and dynamic product recommendations are just two of the ways automation improves the brand experience, which is essential to customer retention. The investment will pay off handsomely, provided there’s an internal champion steering the initiative and tying it to clearly defined objectives and timelines.
The following tips will serve as a guide to implementing new tools successfully:
1. Automate Incrementally
Roll out changes on a process-by-process basis. You don’t need to overhaul the entire company at once. In fact, too much upheaval can create chaos and tension. Identify the areas you want to improve, such as supplier onboarding, product selection or assortment planning, and apply new tools one at a time. These solutions should aid, not confuse, the team members responsible for these processes.
2. Work Toward an End Goal
Home in on a key objective, keeping the scope narrow during the implementation period. Determine how you’ll measure impact, and monitor performance closely. If the platform proves successful, iterate and integrate it elsewhere. If you don’t get the results you hoped for, all is not lost. Take your learnings and apply them to the next idea until you find the right solution.
3. Manage the Change
People fear change, especially when they believe it will put them out of a job. Choose an internal champion who can advocate for the new system and is willing to train colleagues on it. If possible, introduce the changes piecemeal. For instance, if an existing process relies heavily on Excel, make sure your new platform works well with Excel by supporting import and export. You’ll receive less pushback if you don’t upend employees’ workflows overnight.
As more companies come around to the benefits of automation, ignoring this trend will be a competitive liability. By exploring automation solutions now, retailers can learn what works for their businesses and stay ahead of the curve.