Q&A Part II: Five Ways Retailers Can Put Technology to Work to Engage Millennials and Improve the Store Experience

I recently had the opportunity to speak with John West, director of retail consulting at Workforce Insight, a leading provider of strategic workforce management (WFM) consulting and implementation services about the emerging and expanding role of Millennial Generation staffers in the retail workforce.

In part 1 of this post, John and I discussed the ideals, expectations, and technology biases of Millennials, and we discussed a few ways for retailers to connect with and engage these workers.

Here in Part 2, I will share the highlights of our discussion that centered specifically on how retailers can leverage technology – both consumer technology and enterprise technology – to connect, engage, and retain the new face of retail.

Q: John, are there any surprises in store for retailers as they begin looking to technology as an employee engagement tool?

A: Retailers may be surprised to hear me say that they have more opportunities than ever to engage their workforce, especially millennials.  Typically the big obstacle to WFM success in retail is gaining widespread adoption of the tool by users, many of whom are part-time workers.  With Millennials, we have an employee group that is anxious for new technology to save them from the outdated tools they’ve been using.  Further, if we’re able to actually fulfill employee desires for seamless scheduling and timekeeping, mobility, task management and the elements that help make up a good work-life balance, you’ll see employee engagement and adoption of these systems skyrocket. 

Q: That’s a very interesting idea.  For the first time, the industry has users clamoring for new technology. So when it comes to this coveted technology, where should retailers begin?

A: While integrating Time and Attendance (along with Forecasting and scheduling optimization) has been a retail initiative in the spotlight for most of the last decade, advances in the areas of time and pay software tied into attendance tracking now allow clear insight into how employees are being paid.  Retailers have real-time views of how much labor they are utilizing day to day.  These systems have proven more successful since they have been integrated into demand forecasting and optimized scheduling.  By bringing together a demand model, with a scheduling engine that intelligently applies shifts, it creates a time, pay and scheduling ecosystem, in which millennials find a seamless means by which to interact with workforce management systems.  Remember, they expect integrated systems. Requiring Millennials to access to one application to check their schedule, another application to check on their timecard, and yet another application to check accrual balances is unacceptable to them. 

And we must realize that “seamless” to this generation does not mean providing an employee portal with 50 links and single sign-on.  Seamless to a Millennial means providing them access to one app, that behaves the same way, across all of their WFM functions.  This base, singular user experience increases adoption and is especially useful when workers have visibility to their own records, can actively correct behaviors, and help clear up any inaccuracies before it can affect their pay.

Q: Okay, so first and foremost retailers should leverage technology to ensure that the “basics” – managing schedules and their timekeeping process – are integrated and accessible. What’s next on your WFM technology hit list?

A: Optimized scheduling is a close second to time and attendance technology. Millennials typically respond very well when technology supports the needs of the business and their personal needs simultaneously. Modern WFM technology has the opportunity to support the needs of the business through demand modeling. Recent advances like traffic counting systems and big data analytics accurately forecast sales and service demand on the sales floor. 

Trending analysis can now be applied to specific categories of items, thus indicating buying behaviors of clientele.  This capability allows retailers to better staff to specific demand patterns, putting the right person (with the right skills) in the right place at the right time. Millennials don’t want to feel stranded out on the sales floor with a flood of clients, and if they feel the scheduling system is using the right technology to give them the right team to work with, it keeps them engaged and satisfied with their work. Remember, millennials on the sales floor feel like they are representing the brand, and if they feel they aren’t able to represent it in the best light, they become disenfranchised, and will no longer be brand advocates. If you don’t have their back on the sales floor, they won’t have yours….anywhere.

Q: Well said, John. Service is definitely a key element of the in-store experience, and highly engaged employees can play a pivotal role in delivering service standards that drive competitive advantage. So far, you’ve mentioned scheduling and time and attendance as priority technology for retailers attempting to engage Millennials. You haven’t yet mentioned mobility. Where does mobility fit in the equation?

A: Mobilizing the most mobile generation in our time only seems to make sense. And if we are able to leverage the devices and tools that Millennials are most familiar with to task management processes; we can tap into a couple of Millennials’ greatest strengths: multi-tasking, team work, and task progression. Millennials also love games, and task progression through task management almost works as gamification of tasks for Millennials. They see their tasks getting “knocked out,” and they receive immediate feedback by seeing their tasks marked as complete. When they can see their tasks compared to their peers, you can even create a positively competitive environment around task management.

Lastly, retailers can truly engage their Millennial workers by mobilizing everything. We know that every millennial in every store has a phone in their pocket that’s likely as powerful as the PC in the back office, and engaging them through this technology keeps them satisfied and engaged. 

Q: Excellent insight, John. The value of bringing mobility to task management is unquestioned, and adding a gaming element seems to have real potential. Before I let you go, one last question. As you and your colleagues at Workforce Insight have implemented WFM at hundreds of retailers, have you gained any insights into what’s next for WFM in retail in the next 24 months?

A: Over the next 24 months, we see WFM in retail pushing more deeply into the categories of Mobility, task management, a larger use of big-data and analytics, and omni-channel considerations. 

The first trend, mobility, which we have touched on here already, will be driven by the adoption of mobility in retail workforce applications. The cost of the technology has fallen in line with retail budgets, and the suite interaction has been made into a more easily adopted piece of technology. The ability to select an open shift, have the system select the best candidates to query for the shift, and then issue the opportunity to those employees to sign up via text message, is available within a few clicks now. Even the non-Millennial manager can utilize this technology with ease. 

The area of task management, while it’s been a hot button within retail for quite some time, will see greater adoption across all retail formats. We’re seeing everyone, from c-stores to big-box stores, expressing more interest – and making investments in —  task management technology. I think what’s driving this is the integration we’re seeing in the vendor landscape of task management and scheduling products. This integration allows retailers to connect the dots from the initial creation of a task all the way through execution. It’s a powerful tool for goal attainment within retail, and more and more retailers are going to see improved execution in the next 24 months through the adoption of task management.

When it comes to big data and WFM we have really only seen retail scratch the surface. While we now have the technology to “cube up” and dissect vast amounts of data moving within modern WFM systems, retailers are just now seeing the real possibilities inherent in using this data to improve their WFM systems and usage. The opportunity for analysis and big data within WFM is going to be big in the next 24 months, and like I said, so far we’ve only scratched the surface. 

With omni-channel retailing becoming ubiquitous, retailers now face the challenge of ensuring that customer service in every aspect of their business has a consistent look and feel. One significant WFM challenge arises when customers buy online and pick up (or return) their purchases in store. These transaction that are difficult to predict as to when they will occur, making it difficult to anticipate staffing needs. However, as we just discussed, the use of data and analytics, could provide the cure, by analyzing what types of products were picked up within 24 hours of notification of the customer, which items require the most client interaction, what is the percentage of returns, and how many days after purchase do they most often occur. This is obviously a complex problem, and while retailers have a little ways to go in order to completely solve it, combining WFM systems with data and analytics will really help push the needle in the next 24 months. 

To learn more about Millennials in the retail workforce, click here to view an on-demand recording of a recent webinar featuring John West of Workforce Insight and Dave Bruno of JDA.

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