Store associates are on the front lines at a time when business turmoil is creating enormous profitability challenges for retailers. I’ve spent years managing RFID projects in North America and Europe and have learned that getting associates excited about new RFID systems and related processes can make a huge difference in shopper engagement and improved store operations. Based upon my experience, here are five ways that employees empowered with RFID can make a measurable difference in retail operations that span hundreds or even thousands of stores.
#1: Take advantage of the transformation of mobile devices: The days of handing employees large, unfamiliar devices and telling these reluctant individuals to go out and take inventory are over. Newer devices are smaller, have much more recognizable and intuitive interfaces and work with unified applications that require minimal training. Today, retail managers can give employees a device such as a smart phone with a specialized attachment, demonstrate the applications, tell them what each is used for — and see an entirely different reaction and result. Some of this difference is because younger associates have grown up with mobile devices, but even older associates who own smart phones are far more comfortable with handhelds today. Such devices are able to give associates instantaneous feedback on what each is doing, for example, on fulfillment or item location tasks, and make department managers feel more like small business owners, as they can more directly impact day-to-day business issues to meet their goals.
#2: Get associates “hooked” early with immediate payoff applications: My favorite way to get associates on board with RFID is to demonstrate an item location application that enables them to help shoppers find merchandise they are seeking. Employees love using a tool to make this quick and simple. This not only improves customer service by providing an immediate payoff, but also gets associates excited about learning other uses of the technology. Another good early application is inventory, one of the least desired manual tasks associates experience. Automating this task raises morale, increases accuracy and enables associates to spend more time on customer-facing activities.
#3: Focus on merchandise that is “hot” and new: Most retailers have scheduled periodic times to take inventory. Even better, though, RFID systems tied to point- of-sale systems enable them to know what SKUs are selling quickly so they can replenish merchandise automatically as needed. Retailers can now use dynamic processes and task management to replenish fresh assortments and keep hot sellers in stock. Keeping the right quantities of this fast inventory on floor via push processes ensures a better shopper experience and increased sales. Even scheduling inventory tasks more frequently using RFID readers can ensure that retailers keep stock relevant to consumers (in season), so the right merchandise is in the right place at the right time.
#4: Make everyone a stakeholder: As part of on-boarding, all new employees should receive training on their RFID systems so they can learn best practices and take ownership of what happens in their departments. Once these employees are familiar with RFID, they can train other full-time or seasonal employees. When RFID is being rolled out, retailers may begin by using a limited number of SKUs as part of their pilots and perhaps focus on cycle counting or item location functions. It’s important to get the team involved early and get them invested in the project. I’ve been astonished to see team members get very excited about RFID projects and show creativity in ways in which the technology is used. It’s not unusual for retailers to begin with inventory projects and have associates push for further use in replenishment and by tying RFID to point-of-sale systems. I recall a retailer that created a discounted sales area for clearance goods. A problem developed when customers dropped regular merchandise into that area, creating confusion for other customers who then assumed the merchandise was discounted when they brought it to the register. This decreased customer satisfaction, created awkward situations for sales associates who had to explain the situation, and it slowed down the checkout process. At first, associates began sorting through merchandise manually in the bins to determine which didn’t belong there, but that proved very time consuming. One associate then suggested they use handhelds to quickly and accurately scan for regular merchandise that was misplaced there. They then set up system flags that could filter out merchandise that wasn’t on clearance, solving the problem. The important takeaway here is that it was an associate, not a store manager, who came up with the solution, because that person felt empowered to seek solutions and took ownership of obtaining a positive outcome.
#5: Keep it fresh and fun. Encourage cross training among associates, enable team collaboration (such as team cycle counting) and reward outstanding work behavior. One retailer uses a contest to reward those associates who fulfill the most omni-channel orders accurately in a set time frame. Beyond small rewards, many retailers also recognize these individuals similarly to how they acknowledge employees of the week/month. Retailers can also use RFID to keep it fresh and fun for their customers. With apparel retailers adding even more seasons, RFID enables them to keep new and trendy merchandise in-stock and available for shoppers, thus encouraging them to come into their stores and make purchases more frequently.
We’ve passed the point of wondering whether RFID can provide retailers with measurable benefits and are now looking at ways to maximize the potential benefits of RFID implementations in real-world situations. Empowering associates in these five ways chain-wide can dramatically increase customer satisfaction, employee retention and the retailer’s bottom line.
Sonya Weed is an RFID Program Manager at Checkpoint Systems, a division of CCL Industries. She has over a decade of experience in managing large scale IT deployments in retail and healthcare.