AI in Retail: Beyond The Hype and Into Reality for Store Operations.
The term "AI" is often thrown around, but what does it really mean?
It’s an average Monday Morning. If you are one of the ~100,000 store leaders in America, you are saying goodbye to your family, getting into your car, and readying yourself to clock up the miles on your weekly commute across your store portfolio.
Except that for the past few months, Monday Mornings have been far from average. For many of these store leaders, the weekly ritual of the “store visit” has been cut back in the current pandemic, with travel so restricted.
Continuing with a common line of questioning, should we also be pushing for corporate introspection of this practice during this pivotal moment? Could we see this as an opportunity to improve the “store visit”, making the relationship between area leader and manager more effective than ever? Or go even further – should we be reviewing the store visit entirely?
Let’s review the biggest negatives that store visits present.
It’s a lonely life on the road. Unhealthy habits kick in as weekly rituals of different motels and cafeterias become mainstays. Expectations from above add increasing pressure on top of the problems to resolve from below. Given this tightening vice on middle managers, its no wonder that they are some of the most over-burdened and miserable in the workplace.
As Jeff Pfeffer described in his radical book Dying for a Paycheck, not only does this have a burden on the individual, but also on the company. Reduced workplace productivity is an obvious impact but there is also a substantial financial burden. High demand jobs like an oft-traveling area leader result in $46bn of annual excess health costs every year.
Central office or a task management platform typically prepares a checklist of the many different things a store leader has to check and tie when visiting a store. Store visits have, as such, become more an audit activity of compliance than a development exercise for the store manager and their team.
There are two problems with this.
The first is an effectiveness problem. Checklists, after seeing huge success in the aviation industry, were pioneered with remarkable results into the medical industry in the late 2000s. This led to widespread adoption across the board with limited success: in complex environments, few were able to repeat the initial experiments. Checklists often can become irrelevant when they don’t take into account local factors.
The second is a human problem. The stereotype of an inspector wearing a white jacket, with glasses, pen, and almost robotic demeanor is probably there for a reason. Running through a checklist is not an effective coaching tool, nor does it develop relationships well. People and their stores have different strengths and weaknesses. Treating them as uniform automatons is a useless endeavor.
A great store visit requires adequate preparation. However, when 3-5 hours are spent every day traveling between meetings or doing administrative activities, many area leaders can only put the effort in during the walk from the car park into the store. Even if they have more time, with endless spreadsheets to review and checklists to complete, they can struggle to prioritize the information provided and end up making decisions and recommendations on feel and gut.
It would be wrong to say that store visits don’t have value. Being on the ground develops rapport, allows you to see the store from a customer’s eyes, and gives a first-hand view of team dynamics that a phone call would never reveal.
But even if they’re irreplaceable, they’re definitely improvable. Here are three suggestions that could help overcome their shortcomings.
This has been a necessary fact of Covid-19, but we should find a way of making this persist to improve wellbeing. Area Leaders need a better blend of coaching by video and in person, not just for their own sanity, but also to be able to appropriately analyze and record information to help develop managers.
In the digital age, a bookbinder full of reports and checklists just doesn’t stack up. Such materials are overwhelming, incomprehensible, and ineffective. Leaders need technology that can take away administrative hassle so they can focus on managing and coaching. The right tool should enable them to:
A. Review their business performance.
B. Engage their team and see how they are performing.
C. Record and monitor the actions being taken.
D. Have data insights surfaced and prioritized for them rather than searching for a needle in a haystack of reports.
For most companies, Learning and Development stops at the Store Manager level. Going beyond this, self-development requires jumping into the deep end and swimming. However, the jump from Store Manager to looking after a portfolio of stores is an incredibly challenging shift. Delegation, prioritization, people management – all become a lot more difficult at this stage of the career ladder. Specific development and curriculums are needed to support this transition.
If you’re looking for ways to make these improvements, I have pulled together a more in-depth framework called ‘Agile Coaching’. The ultimate goal of the framework is to make sure that managers and their stores are improving and developing to drive better business performance.
In discussing with Leaders we realized there are a number of questions on how to execute good Agile Coaching. So we’ve created a guide giving a view of how to prepare, what to cover, how to think about Goals, what the data says is best practice, and how a tool like Quorso can help. Complete the form below to be emailed a copy.