As we emerge from the pandemic, businesses of all shapes and sizes and in every sector are reimagining their operations. More than most, retailers are having to consider how best to change given the impact COVID-19 has had on shopping habits as shoppers have shifted to online platforms. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Hong Kong where government statistics show retail sales in the first half of this year are more than two percent lower than in the same period of 2021. Clearly, there is significant work to be done.
From uncertainty to opportunity
The disruption brought by technology and a new swathe of competitors on the sector over the last 10-15 years has made traditional ‘brick and mortar’ retailing significantly more challenging. This has been exacerbated by COVID-19 with government restrictions not only impacting the volume of shoppers but also the number of staff available to work because of quarantine regulations creating manpower shortages.
Despite these challenges, weakened consumer confidence and an almost-complete lack of tourist dollars, there are opportunities though. In the first half of 2022, estimates are that online sales have increased by nearly a quarter compared to this time last year. Retailers need to grasp the bull by the horns and migrate their businesses online – or at least partially online – to help create stellar consumer and employee experiences.
Optimal customer experience for a busy shopping hub
For retailers keen to understand the power of technology to gain critical intelligence to stay ahead of performance issues and stay agile in the face of unforeseeable circumstances, the case of HKTVmall is a source of inspiration.
HKTVmall is a buzzing one-stop-shop ecommerce platform that not only sells a wide range of consumer products, but also includes video live streaming and delivery services. When COVID hit, HKTVmall’s traffic increased tenfold. The surge in online shopping sent its previous SAP Hybris ecommerce platform into overdrive, and it was barely able to keep up. When a significant surge in online shopping during the 2021 Chinese New Year resulted in serious performance issues, the platform’s provider was unable to diagnose or resolve the problem, instead offering to reboot the server as the only available fix. As the performance issues continued, so did the server reboots – with no real resolution.
In an effort to resolve the performance issues once and for all, HKTVmall adopted AppDynamics, an application performance monitoring solution for their backend servers and ecommerce. This finally delivered much-needed visibility, identifying a recurring problem with application memory. Combined with 24/7 monitoring and detailed alerts, HKTVmall’s IT team was able to stay ahead of potential performance issues and make quick, on-the spot decisions to ensure customer shopping and search activity were not adversely impacted.
With the monitoring solution in place, HKTVmall has gained peace of mind knowing it has 24×7 visibility of the platform and can take the necessary steps to keep it running at optimal levels. With the information and analysis gleaned from its systems, the IT team operates with greater agility and is able to implement new ideas quickly to support a variety of business models and promotions. The IT team’s confidence has also allowed the company to expand its presence in Hong Kong and position themselves as a true technology partner to other retail brands and businesses that want to host online shopping.
Investing in five key areas to enhance employee experience
Technology has not only helped build new revenue streams and streamline operations for many retailers, but it has also had an unexpected side-effect: improving the employee experience and positively impacting staff retention.
Much has been made about the Great Resignation and retailing has been particularly hard hit as the tightening labour market has allowed employees to move about with much greater freedom as well as giving them leverage in both salary and benefits negotiations. This is driving retailers to completely rethink the employee experience. Much like customers who now expect a seamless, digital experience when shopping, retail associates expect and demand the same kind of digital experiences in their interactions with their employers. Currently, many frontline associates must navigate disconnected and outdated systems just to view schedules, request days off, find company policies, or perform simple in-store tasks such as locating products and finding order information for customers. These antiquated systems and processes make it harder for them to do their jobs which drive down employee engagement and satisfaction, and increase staff turnover.
Similar challenges also apply to retaining managerial and HQ support staff, particularly in our new hybrid working environment. The recent Cisco Global Hybrid Work Study 2022 revealed that a majority of respondents in Hong Kong found hybrid and remote working had improved various aspects of their wellbeing and a combination of a remote and in-office working is the preferred model for the future. This implies that businesses need to create hybrid working models if they are to retain talent. Our survey, however, also revealed that only one in six employees feel their organization is “very prepared” for hybrid working, and more than half of them agree that increased usage of technology is a key factor for the success of hybrid working.
To combat these challenges, retailers must invest in technology to reduce sources of friction for their associates. Just as they have done for customers, retailers need to improve the employee experience by investing in five key areas:
Many retailers still utilize time-intensive paper schedules and outdated practices to manage employee shifts. Moving to technology that enables employers to post schedules digitally and communicate updates to employees proactively would make it easy for associates to request shift changes or fill slots available without having to contact management, giving employees greater control and freedom over their schedules. It also strengthens the ability of store managers to manage shifts more easily.
Product training and information
Customers have become more demanding of timely product information when they shop. Outdated technology can make it a challenge for retail associates to locate precise product information and availability promptly and effectively. By connecting employee devices with inventory systems, employees can devote more time to address customer needs and give thoughtful recommendations instead of searching for basic product information. The consequences are significant: a better employee experience, increased sales and improved customer satisfaction.
Secure and seamless connectivity
Retail associates often move between the retail floor, the stock room and staffing areas. Roaming across such a wide array of spaces can impede connectivity and expose devices to external threats. Retailers must ensure secure, seamless, high-quality connectivity across the entire store footprint so employees have seamless, uninterrupted access to the digital resources they need. This ensures frictionless purchasing and the efficient delivery experience customers expect.
Occupational safety and health
Retail, unlike other businesses, requires employees to be physically present to execute their role. As a result, retail companies must implement well-established employee health and safety systems that allows them to monitor air quality, comply with space and room density constraints, and respond rapidly to health and safety concerns. Technology can be used to make these systems easy to implement, and fast to change.
Employees and businesses alike see the tangible benefits of hybrid working in a number of ways – from improved overall employee wellbeing to better productivity and work performance. To fully leverage the opportunities of a hybrid work future, retailers need to put particular effort into building an inclusive culture, devising employee engagement strategies, and deploying technology infrastructure to bring organizations to the readiness levels of their employees.
COVID-19 has introduced complexities and uncertainties to the retail industry. However, it has also brought opportunities for retailers to reshape their business. Better employee experience directly translates to better customer experience which in turn can drive revenue growth and profitability. This underlines the importance of investing in and rolling out effective technology solutions that can underpin the customer experience as well as play a part in retaining staff by enhancing the employee experience.
(Author: Wilson Ching, General Manager, Cisco Hong Kong and Macau)