by Andy Jones, Xerox

In the game of retail, we’re in the midst of halftime and coaches are calling all retailers to up their game if they want to come out on top. Retailers are combating multiple plays (trends) including increased competition due to the rise of e-commerce, new technology that is revolutionizing the customer experience, increased consumer demands, shrinking budgets, an exorbitant amount of data to manage and analyze, and increasing supply chain complexity. In summation, the playing field is changing and it’s a critical time for retailers to turn these challenges into opportunities.

When you look at everything at once, it may seem daunting, but there is an abundance of technology and software solutions to help retailers address their fundamental challenges and embrace these trends. No matter if you’re a mom-and-pop shop or a major, international retail chain, operational processes are at the core of business. From ordering and stocking shelves to payment and reporting, these processes keep stores running day in and day out.

According to an IDC study, more than 50 percent of all documents employees use in retail are paper-based. Retailers print millions of pages every year. Paper is a major operational cost that retailers don’t think about. Printing, storing, shipping and manually analyzing the data to make better business decisions are all cumbersome, time-consuming, inefficient and error-prone processes that cost retailers more than you’d think.

In order to improve efficiency and productivity in retail, investing in automation and optimization technology to streamline daily processes and ensure the optimal operation of the manufacturing and distribution supply chain can prepare your company for the future. In fact, JDA and Forbes found that supply chain optimization can cut inventory levels by 50 percent, freeing up dollars to be reinvested in innovation, something very important to the retail industry.

Additionally, this automation technology can streamline and improve back-end processes by:

  • Consolidating all data into one digital platform for easy analysis during the product’s life cycle
  • Proactively analyzing data to identify discrepancies in reports, so you can identify issues before they become problems
  • Alerting store managers when inventory levels are low and automatically triggering the reorder process
  • Recognizing when prices are outdated or inaccurate to ensure customers are getting the correct deals, store prices are competitive, and that the stores don’t lose money to “paper shrink”
  • Tracking deliveries and comparing purchase orders for automatic invoice reconciliation

Customers can also benefit from retail automation tools because they ensure the stores are stocked with today’s most popular items. Additionally, they free up employees’ time to help customers and to focus on more important tasks that can improve store quality and customer satisfaction.

Retail automation and supply chain technology is a win-win for both retailers and consumers. But the question becomes, how do retailers begin automating processes?

Here are four tips to help put you in the game of retail automation:

1. Bite-size chunks: Looking at all processes on the front and back end of retail can be overwhelming; however, when you break the workflows down into bite-size, more achievable chunks, it’s easier to find areas that can be optimized and improved upon. This allows retailers to focus on developing a smart, strategic plan that will guarantee successful transformation in a specific area. From there, retailers can bring that tactical thinking and learning to different parts of the business.

2. Slow and steady wins the race: Many businesses look for fast fixes, but these band-aids aren’t long term. It’s imperative for retailers to dig deep to find the root of the problem to identify ways to solve it, versus fixing part of the problem quickly. Putting time into a solution will ensure it will truly solve inefficiencies. Leadership needs to understand the challenges and be committed to alleviating them, and employees must be engaged throughout the process to ensure the solution and new processes will work seamlessly within their day-to-day jobs.

3. There is no “I” in team: I don’t expect that experts on retail are also experts on automation and supply chain technology. Therefore, it’s important for businesses to seek out consultative partners to figure out where the bottlenecks and opportunities are. These partners can effectively suggest a variety of solutions to meet retailers’ unique needs.

4. Invest in agile: When selecting a technology solution to help turn inefficiencies into opportunities, make sure the solution is adaptable and can map back to your business’s custom processes and operations. Automation technology should not be a one-size-fits-all approach.  Every retailer has different processes and procedures in place and the solution should fit into the workflow seamlessly.

It’s an exciting time for retailers of all sizes and it’s important for each business to understand that automation and supply chain optimization technology can be their friend for future success, rather than their foe in the game of retail. 

Andy Jones is vice president, Workflow Automation, Large Enterprise Operations, Xerox.

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Workflow magazine.