People Are the Differentiator

By Mark Roberti

Retailers struggling with competition from websites should use RFID to free up employees to better serve customers.

When I was a boy, my father, a high-school mathematics teacher, would do all his own plumbing, electrical and carpentry work, and even his own automobile repairs. One year, when I was 12 or 13 years old, we dug trenches all over the yard and my dad installed an underground sprinkler system, the first in our middle-class neighborhood. Invariably, he would say to me: "Get in the car. We need to run over to Albert Brothers."

Albert Brothers was a family-owned hardware store in the days before Home Depot and Lowes. The store's employees would give my father advice, like "If you use this kind of coupling, she'll never leak on you," or "This tool is designed to adjust the sprinkler heads. It will save you a lot of time and aggravation."

Like many family-owned stores, Albert Brothers was put out of business by the lower prices of the big chains. But now, some big chains are being threatened by Amazon and other online retailers. One reason is that when you order online, you get what you ordered every time (clothing and shoes might not fit, and you may have to send it back, but it is almost always exactly what you ordered). It's convenient and saves you the time of traveling to stores.

As a result, many operators of physical stores are under pressure. They are struggling to compete with the efficiency of online retailers. Specifically, retailers are adopting an omnichannel approach to retailing, which enables them to sell in stores, over the Internet or via smartphones. I agree that this approach is important, and that radio frequency identification technology is a critical enabler. Companies need a high degree of inventory accuracy to be able to fill customer orders, regardless of which channel they come from. But RFID can help with the true differentiator—service.

What you can't get from websites is sound advice. You can read reviews of products, sure, but what if you want to know the best way to avoid leaky couplings or how you look in a particular outfit? I think people are an undervalued and overlooked part of the equation.

RFID technology allows stores to maintain accurate inventory without a lot of extra time and labor. This means that employees should have more time to spend with customers. What makes sense to me is investing more in training personnel, as well as in hiring and cultivating workers with skills. I'd love to enter a home-improvement store and receive sound advice, but it almost never happens (employees can't even tell you which aisle the duct tape is in). I'd love to try on a pair of trousers and have a store clerk tell me that they are just not right for me and suggest something better.

There have been a lot of articles offering dire warnings about robots replacing humans in all kinds of jobs that were once the purview only of people (see The 20 Jobs that Robots Are Most Likely to Take Over and Will Machines Eventually Take on Every Job?). And it's true that computer algorithms might be able to tell you the best solution for your plumbing problem or the right color shirt to match a particular blazer. But businesses that harness the efficiencies RFID delivers to invest in the human touch might just find that it is a winning combination.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark's opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor's Note archive or RFID Connect.