By Raj Raguneethan, Regional Business Lead, Retail & Consumer Goods, Microsoft Asia
The pandemic has put enormous pressure on frontline retail workers in the Asia-Pacific region. Over the past two years, they have shouldered the burden of keeping businesses open while facing rapidly changing health directives, ongoing supply chain disruptions, and staff shortages.
At the same time, growing consumer demand for contactless and digital options have seen many retailers fast-track digital initiatives. This has required workers to adapt to new processes and technologies – often with little notice and insufficient training. As a result, many frontline workers feel stressed and undervalued.
Now, as retailers consider what comes next, they face the challenge of balancing their business needs with efforts to ensure the wellbeing of their employees. This is where technology can help.
Supporting employees through digital tools and training
We know that many retailers invested heavily in technology to improve the customer experience during the pandemic. According to McKinsey & Company, COVID-19 accelerated the digitization of customer interactions in Asia-Pacific by four years. This helped fuel a jump in online retail sales to US$26.7 trillion globally in 2020, with US$1.4 trillion of those sales in China alone.
But despite frontline retail workers’ important role in keeping our communities supplied throughout this difficult period, data from our most recent Work Trend Index survey shows they remain underserved by technology. Although 60 percent of frontline retail workers are excited about the new opportunities that digital tools bring to their roles and businesses, 34 percent feel they still don’t have access to the right technology.
This disconnect highlights a need for businesses across our region to invest in digital tools and training to empower their employees.
Empowering frontline workers with access to the right data and digital tools can make their jobs easier, reduce stress, and create more time for them to spend on higher-impact tasks like looking after customers. Technology can also help businesses create more meaningful connections with team members, provide more satisfying jobs, and improve staff retention.
Boosting productivity and connectivity with employers
According to surveyed frontline workers, technology will ideally enable them to better control their work schedules, grow their skills, and reduce the time spent on menial tasks such as manual inventory. In fact, we’re already seeing this with the dramatic growth in the monthly usage of Teams on retail’s frontline (up 338 percent between March 2020 and November 2021), which proves that digital technology can help frontline workers streamline their tasks and remain productive.
Technology can also play a critical role in bridging culture and communication gaps by strengthening team members’ connections with employers, and giving them access to resources and tools. Managers can also send messages, share company news, and acknowledge successes, to create a consistent sense of company culture.
Transforming engagement and opening up new business opportunities
Leading Australian retailer Coles is using Microsoft 365 and Teams to develop a team member engagement platform that will transform how its 120,000-plus employees interact with each other and the company. The platform streamlines everything from managing rosters to accessing payslips and procedure manuals. It will also help Coles’ management cascade important information to team members, and will act as a single source of truth for information about products and processes.
“We’ve listened to our team and worked with Microsoft to develop the new platform,” says Kevin Gunn, Coles Executive General Manager of Central Operations and Transformation. “[It] will provide a simple, secure way to connect, to swap shifts, check payslips, and access internal communications, procedures, and training solutions that our team members use each day to do their jobs so well.”
In Hong Kong, Japanese lifestyle department store YATA uses Microsoft Dynamics 365 to make it simpler for team members to access the data they need to do their jobs.
For example, greater data accuracy and real-time stock updates have made it easier for teams to manage inventory. Data flows drive real-time alerts on food items and perishable foods can be discounted or offered as part of a promotion.
YATA’s new digital capabilities also ensure efficient fast, error-free financial closing each day, even during peak periods.
“Our enhanced data capability has opened up a real-time stream of invaluable business insight to deliver new levels of store and network-wide operational and financial visibility,” says YATA’s Chief Executive Officer, Susanna Wong.
Technology also opens new opportunities for businesses. Indian start-up ElasticRun, for example, relies on cloud and digital solutions to connect family-run grocery stores in rural India with global and local consumer goods suppliers. ElasticRun arranges for goods to be delivered to grocers, saving them from having to drive to the nearest city to buy from third-party wholesalers. This has proved invaluable during the pandemic.
“It wasn’t just an advantage for the store owners because they didn’t have to travel; it was that they couldn’t,” says ElasticRun’s co-founder Sandeep Deshmukh. “If we were not there, their supply lines would have been broken.”
Empowering retail with tailor-made cloud
To ensure technology is even more capable of meeting specific industries’ needs, Microsoft has created Microsoft Cloud for Retail.
This industry-specific solution helps accelerate business growth by providing trusted technology services and components that integrate with a retailers existing system. These tools enable real-time communication and collaboration, and help improve workforce management and process automation.
They not only make it easier for workers to deliver more relevant and streamlined customer experiences, but also have a direct effect on customer satisfaction. For example, employees can easily access stock and supply chain data on their mobile device, quickly checking the availability of an out-of-stock item and arranging shipment to the customer.
Our commitment to helping businesses manage their digital transformation journeys – and make life easier for their frontline workers – has seen us collaborate with businesses across Asia-Pacific to help them transform the experiences of frontline workers.
With Microsoft Cloud for Retail now generally available for retail customers, I’m optimistic we’ll be able to support our retail customers even better so they can empower frontline employees, ensure their wellbeing and productivity, and ultimately deliver better customer experiences.