Over the last decade, technology has transformed how we do nearly everything—from using maps to get from point A to point B, to keeping in touch with our friends and family, to ordering food.
All these changes have made your average retail consumer more discerning and demanding than ever. It’s been called the “GAFA effect”: Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple now offer customers ubiquitous immediacy.
This reinforces consumer expectations for speed, high-quality customer service, and immediate access to what they need when they need it. As a result, the number of on-demand shopping experiences available is higher than ever before, with some offering hard-to-beat promotions, such as same-day delivery.
To remain competitive, retail companies need to work smarter to meet changing customer demands.
Retailers need to build a smoother, more personalized shopping experience for customers. To make that happen, they need to build the kind of data-informed internal culture that can enable those kinds of experiences. That requires an ‘automation first’ mindset—freeing up employees to work on higher-value tasks by leveraging software robots that handle tedious, repetitive tasks.
Most recently, I met up with Rajesh Garg, chief financial officer at the Landmark Group, the largest non-food retail group in the Middle East and India. The company has 55,000 employees and over 30 million square feet of retail space across 23 countries. Rajesh shared some interesting insights that are sprinkled along with my views on Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and retail below.
1. Data automation increases operational speed
One of the strongest use cases for RPA in retail lies in data automation. The on-demand precedent set by GAFA (and others in the brick-and-mortar and e-commerce retail spaces) puts increasing pressure on companies in the industry to work faster, more efficiently, and with better cost margins.
Speed comes from hiring capacity, i.e. more people and by using data and technology in a smarter way.
With more data, retail can speed up critical processes like shipping, invoices, and return processing across multiple customer relationship management (CRM) systems. Companies can replace manual work with software robots that centralize data from multiple sources into one location, verify data accuracy, and process data requests in a fraction of the time that it would take their human equivalent.
This has a strong impact on business operations in the context of compliance, as Garg explained. After value-added tax (VAT) was recently introduced to the Middle East, Landmark needed to process 47,000 records to ensure that the company met strict compliance standards.
98.75% reduction in time spent processing records
Landmark’s entire team spent 10 days laboriously combing through records. Then, the company decided to set up a UiPath to automate the process.
UiPath Robots analyzed tens of thousands of records and only extracted those with errors that needed a human review. After implementing the Robots, processing 47,000 records took only 60 minutes, which was a 98.75% reduction in time.
In another instance, Landmark used Uipath to generate invoices. Before automation, manually creating invoices involved pulling data from various sources and piecing them together in a single document. It would take someone on the team 90 minutes to create a single invoice.
Now, with the UiPath Robot, each invoice is prepared automatically in five minutes (94% reduction in time with higher accuracy) and the entire document arrives via email as a PDF for a human team member to print and submit to customs.
“This is a huge enabler for the business at the scale at which we operate,” Garg said.
In a nutshell, data automation via RPA saves retail companies dozens of hours of work, simultaneously boosting internal efficiency and addressing customer requests faster to deliver a better customer experience.
2. RPA improves the customer experience
Successful retail companies know that, when done right, streamlined shopping experiences dramatically increase the likelihood of winning new and repeat customers.
This mostly rings true when it comes to designing a well-thought-out customer experience (CX), which can drive customer delight and loyalty.
In a study that asked customers what they disliked most about a shopping experience, participants pointed to “waiting” as their top pain point. Not receiving the help needed was the second-most-cited consumer complaint.
So, how can RPA help alleviate these pain points for companies and customer alike?
One example comes from automating the product returns process. When a customer wants to return an item, their request would go to a person who manually handles both the back-end work and the front-end work.
The employee would need to talk to the customer to track their original purchase, tell them where to ship the item, and then follow-up once the item was received. The initial process alone could exceed an hour and would be frustrating for both the employee and the customer.
With automation, the return process is streamlined.
An automated system automatically processes the return request, approves it, and, in some cases, sends a return label to the customer. In a well-designed automated return system, the customer receives an email right away, confirming that the request was approved.
As soon as the item arrives at the facility, the customer will get another notification that their return was received and that they can expect to be reimbursed within a few days. There is no need for an employee to facilitate the process, and the whole event can happen in less than five minutes with minimal effort from both sides.
Not only are automated returns more efficient for the retailer, they’re also highly valued by customers and could win the company new business. For instance, Windstream Enterprise found that 68% of surveyed customers held a favorable view of companies with an automated return system.
Other areas where automation can improve the CX involve automating the online (and offline) checkout experience, processing shipments through an automatic system, and using a robot to collect key data points (such as inventory to keep stores well stocked). For any retail company trying to stay ahead of the competition, finding smarter ways to improve CX should be a top priority.
3. In-store retail embraces automation to create better strategy
Online CX and process speeds matter, but so does the customer journey that takes shape in your physical stores. With automated data collection at their fingertips, store managers can use data to think more strategically about store layout, foot traffic, sales priorities, checkout speed, and trade promotions.
Homing in on in-store planning, Garg referred to related data as “dark data.” This is because retail companies are commonly left in the dark about whether their store layouts are effective, let alone how they could be improved.
Garg suggested that RPA gives retailers a big opportunity to understand “footfall, where customers go, and where they spend time.” He added, “If we can harness that data, which Landmark Group is now doing across our stores, then there are huge efficiencies to be gained.”
RPA makes data collection easier by automatically pulling data from various sources, verifying data for accuracy, removing errors (such as duplicates or data discrepancies), and organizing data into records.
Looking at one example, automation can play an instrumental role in improving store layout. A well-planned store can directly impact the customer experience by placing items in a convenient location or grouping certain items in an intuitive way.
RPA comes into play by allowing retailers to become more intentional with their store design. A robot can automatically collect key data points (such as footfall patterns) and generate insightful reports that identify what works and what could be improved.
To take in-store planning a step further, retail companies can also use RPA to design their store based on demographics or other factors that are found to influence customer preferences.
Trade promotions are another way retailers can become more strategic with RPA. Companies may work with wholesalers to run “campaigns” for specific products. This could involve featuring a particular item in a highly visible location, such as at the start of an aisle, or placing it on a stand near checkout. Trade promotions could also take forms as discounts to incentivize purchase.
However, to understand whether trade promotions are effective, you need to explore the data.
With RPA, you can run an analysis that looks at promoted items to identify whether the rate of purchase increased while the trade promotion was active. In doing so, you can gain a deeper understanding as to which promotions to run, and which to shelve.
4. Companies can take on more automated retail tasks
According to McKinsey, roughly half of today’s jobs will be automated in the next decade. While the tools to automate already exist today, it will take some time for companies to fully embrace this technology. More likely, adoption will be done in smaller increments as industries slowly but surely replace manual work with technology like RPA.
This doesn’t mean robots are coming for the jobs of your employees; rather, robots are helping both you and your team focus on higher-value work. This means people can spend less time on mind-numbing, repetitive manual work and instead can train for more complex roles and skills.
Customer experience and user-journey design are two areas where this is particularly true.
CX, in particular, is a focus area of retail companies. Jobs that help companies oversee, manage, or improve the CX are incredibly valuable to global commerce companies.
By automating manual, repetitive work where they can, companies give employees more time to focus on the central part of CX: the customer.
Mr. Garg from Landmark had some interesting takeaways to share with our audience:
- Create your own Center of Excellence (CoE)
- Start with a few robots and get as many stakeholders and decision makers to buy-in as possible
- Have a simple rule of payback in 12 months or less
- RPA is a journey and is morphing towards a combination of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and natural language processing (NLP)
Join international retailers and stay ahead with RPA
Big companies like Amazon are creating a shopping culture that prioritizes convenience and service. In some cases, customers will actually pay a higher price for convenience and efficiency, as PwC found in a 2018 report.
The trend toward speed means retailers need to think about ways to get faster internally—otherwise, they risk losing customers to their competitors. Technology like RPA enables retailers to speed up operations, benefiting customers and companies alike.
Where automation allows retail employees to be more productive while also eliminating or significantly reducing the likelihood of human error, it also helps companies serve customers faster and deliver a more convenient customer experience.
These cutting-edge retailers are embracing RPA to improve everything from warehousing to invoicing.
If you missed our webinar Landmark Group & UiPath – Driving Productivity & Efficiency in the Retail Industry with RPA you can still access the webinar recording for all our insights.
I also invite you to join me at Forward III this October in Las Vegas, Nevada. Forward is the largest gathering of RPA practitioners and experts, all of whom will be sharing their own insights on RPA and using automation to Reboot Work. Stop by and say "hi" and ask me about my favorite phrase, "the Nike approach to RPA."
Shail Khiyara is customer experience officer (CXO) at UiPath.