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Coronavirus

Automation: How it helps retailers cut costs and remain agile

Retail operations are more expensive to run in a post-Covid world due to the extra demands of cleaning throughout the day and managing access to achieve the maximum occupation numbers. And on top of all of all of this, lower footfall and sales than usual.

As the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention and the current crisis has triggered deployment of new solutions.

A significant extra cost is to deploy a colleague to stand at the door and count customers in and out. It can add to the customer experience having a friendly face greet you as you arrive and displaying obvious concern for your safety. However, if that wasn’t your previous operating model then your cost base is increased. Clever footfall counter vendors have repurposed how they use their customer count data to link how many customers are in store to a traffic light system on the external doors. Aldi have been one of the first to use it with customers entering freely if the light is green and waiting at the entrance if red.

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There has been an acceleration in the adoption of existing technology that enables customers to scan their shopping straight into a bag. Used by grocers and in early stage use in Marks and Spencer Food, it has become a win-win in reducing colleague time at checkouts and offering customers a way to reduce contact with others while shopping. Retailers have gone further and added a scan and go option to their app, marrying the already available barcode scanners and payment functionality.

The two parts of a retail operation that take up the most colleague time are serving customers and managing stock. Self-scanning and increased use of self-check-out are helping reduce time at tills, so what can help with stock? The best automation for stock is RFID, Radio frequency Identification. This is a system where every stock item has a unique tag that is quickly read by a radio frequency scanner which transforms typical stock operations.

For example, to log items on the stock file as they arrive at the back door, just point the scanner at the boxes and you have a 100% accurate inventory update. The same works for stock counts and creating fill up lists. You’ll also know exactly where each item is in the store so no more hunting around to find an item for an inter branch transfer or a return.

RFID also has the capability to transform payment, as is currently used by Amazon Go in their payless shopping experience stores and can reduce stock loss too. The challenge before accessing these benefits is the initial investment in IT and getting the whole stock operation ready for RF combined with the ongoing cost of RFID tickets for every item.

This could be the time for RFID. Online has seen a huge boost over the past weeks and stores that have the capability to use their stock file to enable click and reserve and can offer stock online from both their stores and warehouse have a big advantage. RFID is the obvious solution to help, giving near perfect stick number accuracy and visibility of lines across the whole estate.

Automaton that could be earning its keep now is staff planning systems. The KPIs produced include “Schedule Effectiveness” which tells you how well your colleague deployment matches customer demand and workload. Given the changes in customer flow and trade volumes, this data could be invaluable in optimising how colleague numbers are deployed.

Covid-19 driven trading changes are creating an opportunity to review your operation and make investments in automation that can drive value for your organisation.


Simon Hedaux, founder and CEO of Rethink Productivity,

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