Even amid the exceptional rise of e-commerce, there’s no denying that the in-store experience still drives retail. In the US, for example, e-commerce only accounted for 10% of the total retail market — meaning that even if internet shopping is on a clear upward trend, traditional retail remains a lucrative (and highly competitive) sphere of business.
But one of the key ways the in-store experience falls behind is with regard to communication. When customers use a big name e-commerce vendor, they can usually count on fast, reliable contact on anything from product information to return instructions. What’s more, internal communications are typically built for maximum efficiency, often giving e-commerce a step ahead of the in-store options.
Fortunately, there’s still plenty of opportunity for traditional shops to catch up. And one of the most important ways to catch up is by overcoming some of the most common communication-related problems plaguing physical stores.
Here, we’ll go into six of those biggest problems — and give an idea on how to solve them all.
1. Empty store floors
A man walks into an electronics shop, a specific piece of hardware in his mind. Having not been to this store before, though, he’s not yet sure where to find it — which suddenly becomes a bigger problem than he expected because, after entering the store, he finds no employees around to help.
We’ve all likely experienced this scenario: walking into a shop, but finding that store associates are strangely absent. Most often, this problem boils down to communication, or more correctly, a lack of it. If multiple employees happen to take their breaks at once, especially during an understaffed shift, suddenly there’s no one left around to help new customers. As much of an issue as this is for those guests needing assistance, it’s also just not a good look for shoppers expecting to come into a well staffed store.
2. Departmental confusion
“Sorry, that’s not my department,” is a perfectly reasonable thing for a retail associate to tell a customer with questions. But if that refusal doesn’t come with a referral to a different associate, that customer is unlikely to see it so positively.
The trouble here is that neither customers nor store associates are ever very eager to go hunting for an employee who handles the requested department. That’s an issue, of course, because it turns getting ahold of someone knowledgeable about product selection more difficult. When you’re left running through aisle after aisle just looking for an employee who knows an answer to a question, you may just start to wish you were reading online product descriptions instead.
If a store isn’t well connected in its communications — that is, employees don’t have a way to instantly talk with one another — this scenario becomes more likely to crop up.
3. Lone workers
Just as a matter of course, nearly every store will have what’s known as “lone workers,” or employees working by themselves in an area of a store. But as certain as it is that some such associates will work in isolation, the situation leads to several issues.
In terms of day-to-day operations, the big one is simply that lone workers are cut off from the goings-on affecting their colleagues. If main parts of the store need assistance in some way, lone workers will typically not even know they should drop their current tasks and help. Of course, this also works the other way, as lone workers have no convenient means of contacting colleagues in case they need help. While this can on the one hand be a convenience issue, it also presents serious safety risks; if a lone worker falls victim to an accident or even an assault, help will be far slower in arriving when it’s most needed.
Just from a perspective of improving and safeguarding everyday work routines, there’s a clear need for retail workers to have a simple, instantaneous way to communicate with colleagues.
4. Call point issues
One potential way to solve these communication gaps is to set up call points: devices around the store that alert employees that someone in the area needs assistance. The truth is, though, that these devices are a half measure at best.
On top of generally being a pain to install, call points can be difficult to notice without additional signs and space dedicated to them. And being physical devices, they can easily become worn out or even faulty in operation after months of use. Although this option is certainly better than having to physically find associates for help, it’s very much a solution in need of something better — ideally something not reliant on physical buttons and capable of covering specific items instead of general areas of the store.
5. Slow inventory alerts
When shelves are completely out of a given product, customers won’t much enjoy being the first ones to point it out. The problem, however, is that there isn’t always an easy way to alert store associates about when to restock something; typically, it’s left to fellow employees (or, worse, angry customers) to alert others in person that a given shelf needs to be replenished.
A better connected shop, such as one where an associate could instantly tell restockers that a given shelf is empty, this would cease to be an issue; one employee with an eye on products could easily solve the issue. But under most setups, this is an issue that can quickly send home guests who nearly would have been paying customers.
6. Loudspeaker announcements
“Clean up on aisle seven,” anyone? This is another common attempt at addressing in-store communications: simply shouting requests over a PA system. In an ideal setting, simply broadcasting that you need an employee to the frozen department or a restock of nails in home goods would be enough. But in practice, this method falls short.
The main issue is actually getting employees to follow through on these requests. A general blast to all associates can easily leave them confused as to who should be acting on the alert, which slows down the response. Asking a specific associate to an area is better, but it still runs the risk of going unheard due to the low audio quality of most PA systems. Then, even when the alert is answered, store associates have to be filled in on the problem once they arrive in the area, costing still more time.
In cases where employees are being called over specifically to help customers, confusion and delays of this nature make for a fairly negative in-store experience. Not only is the actual problem not getting solved, its ongoing lack of being solved is being broadcast to the whole shop — not exactly a display to take confidence in, from a shopper’s perspective.
Leaping over These Issues
Getting over problems like this is actually simpler than one might think. As anyone with a smartphone can demonstrate, robust portable communications have become more widespread and accessible than ever. But rather than outright use a smartphone to address retail issues, it’s better to use a purpose-built piece of technology.
One option for that technology is x-hoppers by Wildix. A lightweight, highly intuitive-to-use headset, x-hoppers drastically improves retail communications with a dedicated voice channel that store associates can use at any time. With x-hoppers, every employee can at a moment’s notice call for help, ask about a product restock, get departmental information, coordinate breaks and more — all at the touch of a button on a private, employees-only voice channel.
Additionally, x-hoppers allows customers to ask for assistance more conveniently than ever before. The system provides shops with QR codes to place near shelves or even individual items; when customers scan these QR codes with their smartphone, an alert is issued to employees over the x-hoppers headset informing them that a customer needs help with the associated product. This allows customers to quickly and reliably receive assistance with an intuitive, touch-free system that doesn’t require leaving their spot. Even better, data on what products are scanned can be collected for insight on what products in the shop are generating interest.
No matter how you approach in-store retail, it’s critical to do so with strategically considered modes of communication. Traditional ways of shopping are still relevant — but that doesn’t mean customers will always be patient about the wait times and communication gaps that model has traditionally brought. When considering how to manage retail operations, make sure you’re not overlooking the ways that employees (and even customers) can become disconnected.
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