Shoppers, Retailers See Need for Better Automation, Technology in Stores

Zebra Technologies' annual survey finds that consumers feel they are better connected than store associates, that workers would benefit from tablet use and that decision makers seek automated checkout experiences, as well as boosted fulfillment rates, based on inventory accuracy.
Published: December 21, 2018

Retailers are turning to technology to solve shoppers’ frustrations at brick-and-mortar locations, such as improving the fulfillment of online orders, speeding up checkout times and reducing privacy risks, according to a new research report. That means re-imagining the checkout process and improving inventory accuracy to meet fulfillment expectations, ultimately to avoid losing a sale. These are the key findings of a shopper study undertaken by Zebra Technologies, which finds that shoppers are seeking greater convenience, more help from sales associates and a higher likelihood of finding what they need at stores.

The global shopper survey was the 11th annual version of that study, which is aimed at identifying and measuring the interests and concerns of shoppers. The survey polled shoppers, retail decision makers and store associates alike. Customers reported some continued frustrations regarding the difficulty of finding sales assistance, as well as a lack of connectivity preventing store associates from quickly accessing order information, or from finding products and shipping them to customers if they are not available onsite.

From the retailer perspective, the survey found the majority of associates perceive their stores as understaffed and feel they are unable to assist customers due to other tasks they must complete. Sixty-six percent indicated that if they had a tablet or some other handheld access to data, they could better serve shoppers.

Zebra conducts studies annually to gain a sense of market trends. including an IoT vision study (see Zebra’s Annual Survey Sees Growth in IoT Adoption). However, those such as the vision study have focused on decision makers. Zebra’s shopper study is based specifically on customers, and on their perceptions of stores, according to Tom Moore, the company’s industry lead for retail and hospitality. “We’ve also incorporated responses from associates and decision makers, but the lens is stronger toward the shopper,” he explains. “The purpose is for us to capture the voice of the customer. “

In that effort, the study gathered responses from 4,725 shoppers, 1,225 sales associates and 430 decision makers from throughout North America, Latin America, the Asia-Pacific region, Europe and the Middle East, all of whom were interviewed in October and November of this year by Qualtrics. Previous shopper studies focused on customers and retail associates only, while decision makers (such as retailer corporate management) were included in the 2018 survey.

One finding obtained from polling managers was that many are looking at technology to improve the store checkout process. With regard to automated checkout, the survey cited a discrepancy between the perceptions of managers and store associates. While managers felt automated checkout would serve a store well, associates were less convinced. Approximately 80 percent of managers polled said they expect automation at the point of sale to be the wave of the future, while only 49 percent of associates felt the same.

Another key point of concern for retail management is fulfillment expectations, especially for online purchase. Stores are turning more to UHF RFID to solve problems involving out-of-stocks and ensuring that stores can fulfill click-and-collect or ship-from-store orders. The question retailers face now, according to the research, is how to prevent a sales loss due to an out-of-stock scenario.

Zebra’s Tom Moore

For instance, if a customer arrives onsite to pick up a product he or she has ordered, only to find that it is out of stock, that person may opt to cancel the order and buy it instead from Amazon, or from another online service or retailer. With RFID tags affixed to goods, and with either fixed or handheld RFID readers capturing supply chain and in-store inventory audits, companies have a higher level of inventory accuracy, enabling online sales for in-store pickups.

For retailers that have better inventory visibility, that kind of event is less likely to occur—and if associates have a tablet, they can quickly order a product to be shipped to a customer’s home in the event that an out-of-stock event does occur. “The problem is that out-of-stocks are still a big problem for retailers,” Moore says, citing a statistic from IHL Services indicating that 24 percent of Amazon retail sales result from out-of-stocks at stores.

“For key high-velocity orders,” Moore says, such as those placed online for in-store pickup, “retailers need to have north of 90 percent inventory accuracy. If you’re less than that, it’s very problematic for the store and frustrating for customers.” In fact, according to a study conducted by Auburn University’s RFID Lab and GS1 US, inventory accuracy without RFID is only at about 65 to 70 percent.

That leaves lots of room for improvement, Moore notes. With that in mind, he advises, retailers should continue to look into the evolution of their own fulfillment model. “I think the whole journey toward fulfillment is there,” he states. “Some are already in the process; that’s going to continue to evolve.” The objective is to save a sale, and to help store associates do this by providing access to inventory data via a handheld device.

According to Zebra, sales associates felt they would benefit from tablet use, which could provide them with the same kind of easy access to internet-based information that consumers gain from their smartphones. Both shoppers (51 percent) and workers (56 percent) said they believe that customers are better connected to consumer information than employees are.

One new question on this year’s study pertained to shoppers’ satisfaction with personal information security, and it was evident that this constitutes a problem. Only 13 percent of those polled trust retailers to protect their data. Zebra addresses security issues with a software security solution known as LifeGuard, which provides security updates for Android devices. The system is designed for use with Zebra’s Android mobile computers. “[This is] part of our support service agreement,” he says, “but provides aggressive security updates” for Android devices.

Not only do shoppers feel they have more access to information about products than store associates, but employees feel overworked and claim their stores are understaffed. The access to tablet-based information for workers could help alleviate both problems, the study’s authors speculate. Previously, the researchers had asked millennial shoppers whether they felt more connected than store associates, but this year the question was posed to shoppers of all ages

The fact that employees feel overworked is another concern that could be addressed in some way with automation “If you’re not giving stores associates the tools they need to better serve customers,” Moore maintains, “they’re going to feel overworked and understaffed.”