The Candid Voice in Retail Technology: Objective Insights, Pragmatic Advice

Making Store Associates More Productive: An Odd Tale


In our store benchmark report this year, retailers report their top business priorities are hiring better people and getting new technologies rolled out to stores. They do so against a backdrop of consumer price sensitivity, the seemingly endless expansion of, and the recognition that we are still over-stored in the US.

Some say we’ve moved into an Omnichannel world. Others are now calling it “converged channels.” Whatever you call it, it means that the store has become an active node on the supply chain…not just receiving product for sale, but accepting returns of products bought online and shipping to customers as needed as a result of an online sale. This adds a lot of complexity.

It also begs the question, along with Distributed Order Management and fulfillment systems, what technologies do stores need to help their employees become part of these active supply chain nodes? And it brings me to a funny, yet pathetic story.

One of my best friends is visiting an elderly friend in Philadelphia. They needed some supplies so they went to visit their local very big box store; a “super-sized” version of a mass merchant. I’m not going to name the store, but I know a bit about it.

The store being as large and unfamiliar to her as it was, she stopped an employee and asked where she could find a particular item. He replied, quite courteously, that he did not know. She asked about another item on her list and received the same answer. “Sorry, I don’t know.” Finally she asked about one more item and received the same response. Don’t know.

This got her curious and she asked the associate a question: “Exactly what is your job in this store?” His response was priceless. Wait for it. “I fulfill online orders.”

Needless to say, this story created some hilarious conversation on our RSR team phone call today. We pictured this fellow spending his day wandering around the store looking for items to box up and ship. And the true irony is that I KNOW this particular chain has an iPhone-based app that tells an associate where to find just about any item (certainly any sub-category) in the store because I saw it in action in Miami, and raved about the app on these pages as a really quick way to get associates up to speed.

So what went wrong? My friend has an eye for rudeness and would have told me if she thought he was shining one on. She also would have known if he was just being lazy. He really didn’t know and had no tools to help him!

I don’t pretend to know the details. I can say two things: 1) the chain clearly is having a hard time rolling this particular technology out to stores, and b) they have at least one incredibly unproductive employee in their store outside Philadelphia. This is why most retailers acknowledge that they’re still leaving a lot of profit on their Omnichannel operations table. In this case, it manifests in the store.

For the past couple of months we have seen a lot of click bait around in-store employees being replaced by robots for routine tasks, and even for check-out. This story gives you some idea just how far off that vision really is. Building blocks are just not in place. The human employee can ultimately get this particular job done, even though it will be sub-optimized. A robot? Not so much.

Our industry is missing so many technology basics. We hear stories about the “retail apocalypse” but we continue to under-spend on IT. We look to the future, and often miss the present. We jigger with price and fuss over Amazon but when it comes to our store efficiency, we seem to focus more on hours than we do on EFFICIENT hours. I just received a press call about a chain that laid off 800+ department and assistant managers. What were they doing? What has been lost? Do we know?

Honestly, it’s time we rose to the occasion and got our stores running really, really well. I think we can all agree we’re just not there yet.

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Articles & Opinions August 8, 2017
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