What Labor Shortage? Virtual Brand Experts Fill Critical Staffing Gaps

Retailers facing a short labor supply are busily raising pay to entice more recruits. They have shortened hours, offered more flexible work shifts, and increased benefits and perks. Basically, they are doing whatever it takes to improve recruitment and retention. 

On top of that, the labor shortage has been compounded by supply chain delays, inflation, and consumers who are recovering from a pandemic that has resulted in drastic changes in their behavior. 

Quick fixes to fill labor gaps may work in the short term, but smart retailers are seeking long-term solutions that embrace automation. Similar to the way the pandemic forced stores into fast-forwarding omnichannel shopping, the current labor shortage, compounded by supply chain disruptions and inflation, is forcing retailers to expand automation to get ready for the future. For some stores, that future has arrived. 

Retail Automation Takes Center Stage

Retailers have been using some type of automation for years. But now it’s taking off. In a Deloitte survey, 82% of sector leaders said, “automation wherever possible will be a high priority”, and 67% of all respondents cited e-commerce and online shopping as areas for  top investment.

Automation has the potential to transform many facets of retail operations, including security, POS, customer experience, inventory management, data security, traffic analysis, purchase and order tracking, data synthesis, and more.  

They can also solve common challenges plaguing many retailers, such as understaffed stores, associates struggling to serve as product experts and stay up-to-date with changes, brand consistency across multiple locations, and keeping up with associate training needs.  

Automated processes can save time, streamline productivity, and improve the accuracy of information generated throughout a retail operation. And of course, it can reduce labor costs and turnover. Delegating manual activities to automation can result in a happier workforce, too, as employees can then focus on more meaningful tasks. 

Says Matthew Richard, CIO, LIUNA, “Initially, people were worried that automation technology was going to take away their jobs. We’ve demonstrated, though, that we’re automating the parts of their of their jobs that they don’t like doing anyway.”Just think how far automation has progressed. Self-checkout lanes and self-serve kiosks are now the norm in grocery stores, not to mention robots and drones in warehouses and distribution centers, where robots can track inventory and stack and load products in a way that is both accurate and safe. And Amazon is experimenting with cashier-less checkout, relying instead on cameras and sensors to track what’s taken off shelves and charging purchases to an Amazon account after customers leave.

Intelligent automation, in the form of digital workers – software or AI-powered virtual assistants – can easily perform repetitive tasks to fill retail labor gaps. And they can often be installed without the need to overhaul or replace existing technology. A simple example of intelligent automation in widespread use are the chatbots or live chat that companies use to converse with prospects and customers. 

Automation Solutions That Fill Labor Gaps 

Automation can mitigate the challenges of a workforce in short supply. In an article on Grocerydive.com, Gautham Vadakkepatt, director of the Center for Retail Transformation at the George Mason University School of Business, said, “Companies are … saying given the new environment we’re operating in, let’s do this with automation and use our talented workforce in a context that actually adds value to the company.”

When there aren’t enough human associates to support customer service needs, automation can step in on a 24/7 basis to perform a plethora of key tasks.

For instance, live, virtual brand experts, accessible via QR code in real-time by video chat, phone, or text, can supplement retail staff and provide coverage where they’re needed. Skilled and knowledgeable about every facet of your product, able to train your staff remotely, and available on the spot – even after hours – these virtual associates extend your ability to meet your customers where they are, take pressure off your associates, and allow them to prioritize serving the customer in other ways they couldn’t have before.

AI, virtual reality (VR), and augmented reality (AR) are useful in synthesizing data about customer buying habits, predicting customer preferences, and ultimately supporting the delivery of a more personalized customer experience and faster product sell-through. 

Per CIO Dive, according to a July 2022 Automation Anywhere survey of 1,000+ industry professionals as reported in eMarketer, six in 10 executives say automation has helped their organization get through staffing shortages. Nearly 50% of respondents deployed 100 or more bots in 2022, compared to a 2021 forecast of 24% for bot development. 

IDC predicts that by 2024, 45% of staff in organizations with 1,000+ people will have some development or automation duty, making them the fastest growing employee type (from IDC FutureScape: Worldwide Future of Digital Innovation 2021 Predictions). 

The retail workforce of tomorrow will likely involve a blend of in-person associates and virtual brand experts working together seamlessly to serve customers on the spot, putting the information and incentives customers need to make not just a purchase decision but to have a memorable experience that keeps them coming back.

Automation vs. Humanization: A Delicate Balance

Even as retailers race to embrace automation, they are trying to figure out the level of automation that makes the most sense for what they are trying to achieve, whether it is to reduce labor costs, improve efficiency (in the areas of sales ordering, paying, shipping, marketing, and more), or enhance the customer experience. 

Replacing humans with machines has brought new questions to the fore. Retailers are asking: What is the best use of employees’ time? How can automation help save time and money without forcing us to sacrifice the necessary human touch that shoppers crave? And yes, it’s true that some technological tools will replace human tasks. 

“It is inevitable that robots will take people’s jobs. There’s no need to sugarcoat that,” said Siddhartha Srinivasa, a professor at the University of Washington who also works in robotics at Amazon. 

In general, digital workers are ideal for handling repetitive, narrowly defined manual tasks and jobs that present safety hazards to human workers, like automated order fulfillment centers and robots in warehouses. This can free up human retail associates to spend more time satisfying customers’ individual needs. 

Robots at a Dallas, Texas Walgreen’s can fill as many prescription orders in an hour as a traditional pharmacy can in a day.

AI-powered software and robotics in 25 Walmart regional distribution centers will double the original space capacity and speed product intake and improve worker safety. 

But, whereas robots with shelf scanners to monitor product inventory or computerized machines can absorb and sort zillions of pieces of data in minutes — they can’t empathize with a customer. They can’t respond to a shopper’s often very specific problem. And there are limits on how well they can continually improve their abilities to better understand and respond to consumers.  

Humans Support Tech, Not the Other Way Around

When shoppers browse the aisles of your physical store, they expect human interaction. The kinds of questions customers need answers to run the gamut. A knowledgeable, fully informed associate who is up to date on product specs, inventory counts, pricing, discounts and rewards, and delivery options is most equipped to provide sufficient answers.  

A PWC report confirms that consumers still prefer human interaction. “People engage with apps, self-service checkouts, websites and the like. But the second something goes wrong, they want to talk to a person, stat. Only 3% of U.S. consumers, for instance, want their experiences to be as automated as possible.” 

That said, equipping associates with the right kind of automated tools and technology can enhance their ability to proficiently help and push customers toward making a purchase. 

A report by PWC, Experience is Everything / Get it Right, states that 82% of U.S. consumers want more human interaction in the future, and 59% of both U.S. and non-U.S. consumers feel companies have lost touch with the human element of the customer experience. Yet, just 38% of U.S. consumers say employees they interact with understand their needs. 

Ideally, the technology that retail workers are using should support their roles and help them become more efficient and productive. Job descriptions may change to meet new challenges and opportunities — for instance, cashiers may be free to come out from behind the register to assist customers, and associates can do less merchandise stocking and instead spend more time having direct contact with and serving customers. 

And, according to David Gottlieb, of Trax, a computer vision company, introducing next-generation technologies can be an exciting part of a retail worker’s role. He says, “There’s definitely an opportunity as you think about these next-generation technologies to provide benefit not only to the store as a whole because you’re driving down costs and driving up availability, but also to the associate and to their appetite to stay with the job, because now you’re giving them a cool piece of technology” to work with, Gottlieb said. (from Total Retail Report: The Retailer’s Guide to Optimizing Supply 

Clearly there is not only a labor gap, but an understanding gap, putting pressure on retailers. There is still a strong need for humans to maintain control of many workplace tasks. Unless technology is applied in a way that supports more satisfying human interactions, consumers will be turned off. And, as long as consumers continue to show a preference for face-to-face, in-person shopping, automation must be a part of a relationship-building strategy that drives automation, rather than allowing automation to drive relationships. 

Real-time consumer profiles, behaviors, and buying history can be assessed most readily by artificial intelligence. However, it’s up to a human to review that data and use it to establish and maintain a relationship with each customer. In fact, each customer interaction is an opportunity for a retail associate to understand your customers better so that you can anticipate their needs, more accurately fulfill them, and ultimately build loyalty.   

Besides, human knowledge and intelligence are required to sufficiently integrate automated solutions so that retailers meet their objectives. And, rather than viewing automation as something that is being forced onto a workforce, it is essential for retail staff to become allied participants in automated activities.

Doing Retail Blended Staffing Right

Despite all its promise, resist the temptation to commit to automation to solve short-term problems such as those caused by a temporarily tight labor supply. To get the most out of a blended staff requires a long-term, intentional strategy. Here are some initial steps you can take to pinpoint needs that a blended workforce might fill. 

  • If you’re not already, conduct staff exit interviews to gain deeper understanding of the real reasons associates are leaving. Log and track these, along with recruiting and employment retention statistics to paint a comprehensive picture of any employment gaps that might be hurting your business.  
  • Look for any trends in staff departures. For example, if you’re losing associates because they don’t feel equipped to serve customers across the spectrum of ways they’re engaging with you, consider augmenting your sales staff with real-time, virtual brand representatives who can provide information about new product features and promotions on the spot. Reachable by voice, text, or chat, or a live video call anytime, they can also provide live, one-on-one training, as well as the latest sell sheets, product information, and training videos.  
  • Survey your customers about their interaction with staff. What’s working? What’s lacking? What matters most to them – having immediate access to extensive product information, ease of purchase, or interacting with associates as little as possible?  
  • Look at your compensation plans. Do you need to adjust them to incentivize your in-person associates differently (i.e., to reflect positive customer interactions – such as some auto dealer service advisors’ pay is directly connected to customer satisfaction surveys)? 
    • Assess your revenue goals. Where might augmenting your staff with virtual brand reps not only balance costs but help you meet customer demands across all stores? 
    • Armed with your insights, you can begin to chart out how interaction with digital-only associates might fit into your staffing structure and plans.  

The Retail Workforce Automation Transformation is Here

A report called 2022 TRENDS/Automation Accelerates, by Uipath.com, states, “Within the next 5 years, hybrid human-digital workforces will be the new normal. People will work side-by-side with virtual robotic assistants—sharing tasks, passing work back and forth, collaborating.” 

AskMe™ by MarketSource connects customers to a live knowledgeable product expert via video, phone, text, or chat. It puts the right kind of automation squarely in the hands of retailers where and when they need it to make the most impact.  

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AskMe can be an extension of your retail workforce, able to meet customers wherever they are. It’s empowering teams of some of the world’s most iconic brands, and it can empower yours.

Author: Karen Salamone

Author: Karen Salamone

Karen is Head of Marketing for MarketSource. She is a transformational B2B and B2B2C leader with a history of building marketing organizations, content teams, and demand generation centers of excellence from the ground up. She is recognized for delivering meaningful insights and fresh approaches and for earning best-in-class content, design, and multi-media awards.

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