Neil Harvey, CTO of Kirona, considers the implications of the Industrial Strategy white paper on the retail sector and asks; is there such a thing as a perfect balance, and what benefits can technology have on workforce productivity?
High productivity is surely one of the core goals of any business. Yet achieving it can be a tricky task – and retailers seem to struggle more than most.
The government’s Industrial Strategy, published last year, highlighted how ‘in particular, Britain’s productivity has long lagged behind that of our competitors. At a time of astonishing technological advance, output per hour worked in the British economy has been weak since the financial crisis.’
It’s a damning statement – and for retailers, the picture gets even worse. The retail sector, along with travel and tourism, is highlighted in the report as recording some of the lowest average productivity levels in the UK.
Yet the report is absolutely right to utter ‘astonishing technological advance’ in the same breath as ‘productivity’. Technology is not only the driving force for a huge amount of innovation and process efficiency in businesses; it can also be the fuel for dramatic productivity gains by delivering enhanced workforce management.
It has been reported that technology has driven an overall increase of 84% in productivity per hour for office workers since the 1970s. In light of its increasing value to business, technology spending among retailers is set to rise by around 3% over the next three years according to the Retail Transformation Study– so it is clear that retailers understand its power to improve their bottom line. But how can technology best be put to work in your organisation, and how can you be sure it’s truly focused on improving productivity?
The retail industry has seen more than its fair share of technological gimmickry – anyone remember the ‘magic mirrors’? While such technologies can generate headlines, improving operational productivity requires a different approach; one that begins with the question which problem do I want to solve?
This question embodies the correct application of new technology in the real-world. It forces you to consider, precisely, what aspects of your current operation aren’t as productive as they could be. Perhaps it is difficult for your customers to book convenient appointments that are also profitable for you to service, or your workers are spending too much time and resource travelling between customer home service appointments. Perhaps you have poor visibility over your workforce, which makes it difficult to optimise work patterns and assess productivity on each task.
All of these problems can be solved by new technologies which, far from being flashy gimmicks, are focused on capturing data across your organisation and putting it to work in intelligent ways. A prime example of this is our work with specialist flooring retailer Carpetright. They piloted using Kirona’s field workforce automation software, to schedule and mobilise their home estimator team in two regions before completing a full rollout in March 2015. On review, they found a 15% increase in turnover attributed to estimated sales which earned home consultants extra commission while travel costs remained static. Ultimately after the full roll out to all their home estimators they saw an increase in estimated sales of 34%.
Despite some recognition that technology has a positive impact on real-world challenges, smaller or medium-sized retailers may still be cautious about a change from the familiar to the unknown. The workforce age-range is becoming increasingly broader as more people choose to work beyond standard retirement age. The fallout from this is that retailers are reluctant to introduce new technology to avoid alienating their older employees, who some consider to be a generation of technophobics.
However, technology shouldn’t been seen as a barrier to productivity. Thankfully, there’s a plethora of choice on the market that can deliver results without needing extensive training or a 100-word manual, and introducing simple but dynamic measures such as electronic timesheets or mobile devices could greatly improve efficiency without overstretching your workforce.
Connectivity, collaboration, convergence
Indeed, one of the most effective ways of improving productivity within any organisation is to create richer and more efficient connections between disparate teams and departments – as well as customers – so that information and insights can be shared and actioned more effectively. Large retailers – those that run hundreds or even thousands of premises as well as centralised office functions – are particularly well-placed to benefit from this. Employee portals and team or department-specific sites are some of the best ways of fostering such collaboration, enabling closer working no matter where individual employees are based. On the customer side, SMS reminders and notifications can tighten up the processes of booking home visits and aftercare appointments, improving productivity of field-based workers and driving strong brand engagement.
All this feeds into retail strategies that are focused on data convergence; that is, capturing data from every customer, every application, every integration, every channel and every store in a single repository, visible holistically and analysed with the help of big data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI).
On the move
Retailers of all shapes and sizes are likely to need to support remote and flexible working at different times, whether they employ a single driver taking out deliveries once a week, or a vast workforce across a multitude of different offices, bricks-and-mortar premises, warehouses and logistics hubs. Email and the growth of mobile devices have already done a huge amount to support such working practices, but there are more specialist tools available too.
Mobile working software is designed specifically to connect field workers with centralised offices, creating more seamless connections between remote workers and their managers, and enabling tighter monitoring and control of tasks. Work can be allocated – and dynamically reallocated – and processes can be recorded on mobile applications rather than via paper-based processes which then need to be manually returned to base.
All this drives improved productivity almost immediately, and also enables more intelligent long-term analysis of performance, so that potential productivity dips can be identified and rectified rapidly.
Enhanced workforce management
Mobile working software is part of a broader category of technology that can drive impressive productivity gains for retailers – field service management software.
These solutions are designed to offer a holistic view of large or disparate workforces, enabling managers to see, at a glance, where each individual is, what they are working on and the progress being made. Individual performance targets can be set, and metrics analysed over specific periods of time, so the productivity of individuals and teams can be clearly benchmarked.
National and even international retailers, with their huge workforces, are prime candidates for this kind of software – but so too are smaller players. Following the minimum wage rise, many smaller retailers have argued that they are unable to meet the government’s objectives without increasing prices or cuttings hours. Field service management software allows far more intelligent allocation of resources, closer monitoring of how tasks are completed and therefore more rapid re-allocation of resource when tasks are being completed too slowly; as such, it can enable organisations to ‘do more with less’ and meet minimum wage requirements.
Connect, monitor, action
Collectively, these technologies can all help retailers follow a simple pattern of activity. They connect centralised staff with field based staff who may be implementing the after sales services or installing, estimating, fitting, etc. at the customer’s home. They enable real time visibility, as well as streamlined processes.
Retailers may currently be struggling in the government’s productivity rankings, but the technology is available to increase productivity more than ever before. The benefits are there to be realised.
Find out more about how Kirona help retailers in are article: Why it pays for retailers to invest in workforce technology