Without going into a level of detail that I fear might age me a little too much, I would think it fair to say that I am what might be called an individual with “significant experience” in retail. With a primary focus on the wireless telecommunications industry, I’ve held an assortment of positions from Director and Vice President of Sales to Chief Operating Officer for companies like Sprint and AT&T (including a stint when they were still called Ameritech).
Rather than trying to bore you with a condensed resume, the point I’m trying to make is that I’ve seen a lot of action in the multi-location retail space, but few periods have been as potentially transformational as the last few years… well, except maybe the rise of eCommerce!
The Last Few Years…
So what exactly has made the 2020s such a unique period for retail? To put it bluntly, the COVID-19 pandemic has essentially turned everything upside down. While we’re beginning to emerge from what has been a difficult two years for everyone, there have been effects that will be felt for years, if not decades, to come in the retail space.
Lockdowns had a massive and, for many, disastrous, effect on countless retail operations across the globe. With many countries facing extreme lockdown measures, the shutters were permanently closed on more stores than bears thinking about. Jobs were lost, businesses destroyed, and supply chains disrupted – all secondary to the human toll, of course, but still disastrous for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, globally.
That was followed by an ever worsening chip shortage that is still playing out, with Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger recently noting that he expects the issue to roll on until at least 2024. Given the importance of microchips in just about everything these days, many retailers are still facing uncertainty about their immediate and long-term futures.
Labour Shortages Are a Huge Concern
Beyond those elephants in the room, though, there are many more issues currently facing the retail industry – and these are likely to long outlive both the pandemic and microchip availability concerns…
The first is the ongoing retail labour shortage. As recently as April of this year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reported an increase of around 45% in unfilled vacancies within the retail industry, closely echoing the Statistics Canada findings of 48.9% from Q4 2021. This isn’t a North American problem, either, with a survey conducted in the UK showing that 93% of online retailers were “concerned or very concerned” about labour shortages.
Analysts much smarter than I believe these shortages have been caused primarily by the pandemic. Many within the workforce have decided that frontline work is not quite as appealing as it used to be, given the ever lingering threat of a return to lockdown, or the fear of contracting COVID-19 and being faced with, at best, a week out of action, or much, much worse.
Whatever the reason, potential employees worldwide have been steering clear of the ever-increasing retail vacancies listed on the most popular job sites.
But Wait, There’s More
This is further compounded at the head office level, where remote work has become increasingly common over the past few years – to the point where it is now expected, if not demanded, by potential employees.
Now, remote work definitely isn’t something that’s new. It had been gaining in popularity well before any of us knew what a Coronavirus was, but almost overnight it became borderline ubiquitous with office work as businesses scrambled to find ways to ensure their survival in lieu of attendant staff.
All this has combined to create something of a perfect storm for retail, and it’s not something that I can see changing any time soon.
So What’s the ACTUAL Problem?
Essentially it boils down to this: Retail businesses simply have fewer human resources to perform the same amount of work (if not more).
That means we require a major paradigm shift away from traditional processes. Those businesses who fail to adapt in time, will surely face choppy waters in the years to come.
This issue is made all the worse by the fact that many, if not most, companies are guilty of falling into the trap of having too many tools for the same job. A 2021 report published by SaaS management solution firm Productiv highlighted one of the major problems facing many businesses: Software sprawl.
The Right Tool for the Job, Not All the Tools for the Job
While it may seem hard to believe at first, the findings that the average company utilizes an astonishing 254 SaaS (software as a service) applications, rising to 364 at enterprise level, shouldn’t actually be too surprising.
The reason this data didn’t blow my mind is that I’ve seen first hand how application use at a business level can get wildly out of control.
Think about the various departments within your organization. You might only have a few, or you might have more than a dozen. The likelihood is that each of those departments is using, or is subscribed to, far more SaaS solutions than it needs – with each department using different applications that may do the same thing as other departments.
There may be multiple help desk or ticketing systems – perhaps one for IT, one for general internal staff, and one for customer support. Communication tools? I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some companies are using in excess of 20-30 of those. The same goes for project management, scheduling, finance, inventory management tools, and who knows what else.
Businesses have too many tools that do the same things in different ways, purely because one department favours one process over another. It’s a dangerous path to tread, but one that’s all too common.
This approach causes a three-pronged issue, long term. The first is that, with so many similar tools in operation across the organization, there are massive redundancies to be found. Consolidating those tools into fewer, more complimentary applications would mean huge cost reductions, as well as major time savings on staff training.
Secondly, with so many tools managing your organization’s data it can be difficult, if not impossible, to understand what data is up to date, what data is stale, and what data is completely obsolete. How can you get a full understanding of your data if it’s being split piecemeal into multiple, disconnected platforms?
Thirdly, and most importantly, having so many tools means that it becomes almost impossible to get a full 360-degree view of your organization’s health. If each department is using separate tools, how does anyone outside that department know what’s going on? How can trends be identified interdepartmentally when the data isn’t connected? It’s chaos!
The Good News
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. There are opportunities out there to help businesses fight back from the brink, and go on to prosper… But it does require a major shift away from “traditional” operational thinking.
At Intelocate, where I’ve enjoyed the last five years of my professional life, we’ve got the mantra “Do more with less”, and it’s a phrase that has taken on a whole new level of meaning over the past few years.
If you’ve got less staff attempting to perform the same number of duties, then your processes need to be on point.
Consolidation is key here, in my opinion. Organizations need to take a long hard look at the tools they use and ask whether they’re adding benefit, or needless complications. What tools can be cut? How can you build an interconnected, company-wide source of truth for your data, that provides not only full visibility of operational health, but also allows you to spot trends, and get ahead of them before they become problematic. Do you really need all those communication tools, or can you work to deploy a single platform that does everything you need?
When it comes to consolidation, it goes far beyond software platforms, too, and also applies to your operational processes. Where maximum efficiency is required, simplicity is king. It should be simple for staff, whether frontline or at head office, to focus on their duties without having to worry about the distractions and noise going on around them.
By “keeping everyone in their lane”, as it were, more effective processes begin to emerge, and new efficiencies can be found to make up for the reduced number of staff available.
Overwhelm is Real
At odds with the idea that simplicity is king has been the relatively modern concept that everything needs its own tool. Task management? That needs a tool. Issue reporting or help desk? That needs a tool. Internal communications? You’ve probably got about half a dozen tools for that, I’ll wager. Asset management? You got it: another tool.
Whether we realize it or not, that approach creates the potential for massive overwhelm of your staff. On-boarding of new hires becomes increasingly complex, time consuming, and costly. Disjointed systems produce environments that seriously lack 360 degree visibility, leading to unnoticed, and potentially catastrophic, issues at an organizational level. Managers don’t know what staff are doing, head office doesn’t know what managers are doing… It’s a mess. An overwhelming mess.
Where To Go From Here?
While I’m somewhat biased in my belief that Intelocate offers a perfect solution for many of the issues raised above, the purpose of this post isn’t to try to sell you on our product. Instead, it’s to urge you to consider your organization’s processes, and explore whether or not they are reflective of the current situation. Can you truly say that your business is on the path of doing more with less, or has it fallen into the trap of doing less with more?
You might not like the answers once you start digging, but, ultimately, it may just be the nudge you need to avoid issues down the line!