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This Is Where Retail Leaders Feel Pressured to Improve

Covid-19 shined the spotlight on where retailers had been underinvesting, whether it was in their supply chain, their delivery capabilities or their store experiences. With the e-commerce explosion of 2020 making convenience, product availability and speed even more of a must-have, retailers have had to take notes and adapt.

In trying to cater to one of the biggest demands from shoppers, 77 percent of retail decision makers reported feeling pressure to improve fulfillment operations and efficiency so they could offer a variety of delivery options and speeds, according to a survey from Zebra Technologies.

Seventy percent of the 412 retail executives surveyed say that maintaining real-time visibility of out-of-stocks is a significant challenge, and even more (83 percent) of the 577 store associates who deal with the products all the time agree with the sentiment.

This real-time visibility could be pivotal for retail’s future success, with 41 percent of shoppers saying they’ve left a store without making a purchase because one or more of the items they wanted wasn’t in stock.

Most executives seem to understand where the problem lies, with 80 percent saying they need better inventory management tools for accuracy and availability. Only 64 percent of associates feel the same, but they do mark accessing inventory as the second-most valuable use of technology, with price checks coming in on top and barcode scanning being viewed as the third-most vital.

Supply chain leads digital integration investments

Retailers are integrating digital intelligence across all aspects of their operations, with 86 percent saying they are investing in this digitization within the supply chain—a seven percentage point increase year over year.

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The same amount (86 percent) is investing in digital for loss prevention purposes, while another 82 percent are integrating these intelligence capabilities in merchandising. Eighty-three percent say they assimilate digital within their store operations.

Although there are significant investments being made across the board, retail execs and store associates don’t always see eye to eye on where investments were being made, such as staffing, training and safety—all increasingly important in a pandemic-era environment. For example, while 91 percent of execs agree their stores should make health and safety a priority, only 77 percent of associates would say the same. And while only 69 percent of associates would call their stores “adequately staffed,” 88 percent of executives feel the same—a 19-percentage-point gap.

To conduct its 13th Global Shopper Study, Zebra surveyed store associates, retail execs and 4,175 shoppers to gauge today’s attitudes, opinions and expectations of retail. The second volume of this survey, released in March, focused on retailers’ plans to meet today’s standards through technology.

Tech investments mean changing associate roles

Overall, more than half (61 percent) of retailers said the pandemic accelerated their technology investment plans, while 77 percent fast-tracking implementation plans that were already in place for devices and solutions. Surprisingly, just 68 percent of North American retail execs accelerated their implementations, the lowest of all four regions surveyed, while 83 percent of those in the Middle East and Europe took the faster track.

If there’s any consolation, 34 percent of North American associates said they were concerned about being replaced by technology, the lowest of any region.

Given the increasing amount of technology permeating retail, store associates’ roles will change in different ways. The Zebra report highlighted four different areas of specialization that the associate role will evolve into in the future: virtual specialist, safety associate, livestreamer and in-store logistics manager.

All of these roles have already started to take shape, as more retailers use platforms to help consumers shop their store remotely, while some are enabling specialists with a blend of product expertise and presenting skills to host live events online.

And as the line between store and fulfillment hub continues to blur, retailers now are picking associates to oversee the logistical issues of managing inbound deliveries, space requirements and BOPIS/curbside pickup initiatives.

Top 10 emerging tech by 2025

Overall, associates and retail decision makers agree that tech-powered associates provide better experiences, with 72 percent of employees and 85 percent of executives saying so. Fifty-five percent of associates say mobile devices make all the difference in finding the correct price, while 53 percent say they are beneficial to find the product they are looking for in store.

Whether retailers decide to actually adopt newer technologies or not, they do seem to largely agree that a vast array of solutions will be necessary for the future of the industry to thrive. Of the top 10 most emerging technologies over the next five years, the top (workforce software) was listed by 83 percent of retailers, while the tenth (a unified commerce ecosystem) was cited by 76 percent.

Other major technologies highlighted by the retail execs surveyed include smart checkout (82 percent), prescriptive analytics (81 percent) and advanced order fulfillment/management (80 percent).