How does the store of the future operate? In 2021, as retailers are grappling with how radically COVID has upended how we shop, this question is not a theoretical exercise, but an urgent priority.  As the world creeps toward a return to normalcy, many of the pandemic-inspired shopping habits we’ve formed around eCommerce and click-and-collect will be sustained. But despite the overhead it brings, brick and mortar shopping isn’t going away. It will, however, be significantly transformed. Retailers will bring an unprecedented level of focus on two factors: improving in-store operational efficiency, and delivering a superior customer experience. These two objectives can seem at odds with one another, but the right solutions can deliver on both fronts. 

Retailers are increasingly looking toward voice technology to augment what their employees can do, and streamline how they do it. The use cases are compelling and diverse, from voice-enabled product look-up, to voice-guided inventory management to voice-controlled IoT functions like opening register tills as associates make their way over to checkout.

If it saves time, empowers employees with information, and keeps eyes and hands free, it’s probably a winner. 

The use cases are compelling and diverse, from voice-enabled product look-up, to voice-guided inventory management to voice-controlled IoT functions like opening register tills as associates make their way over to checkout.

While the value of arming employees with voice tech may be enticing in theory, delivering on this potential is not easy. To drive meaningful adoption, solutions need to be reliable, intuitive, and backed up with a data-driven business case. 

Here are the five steps each retailer can follow to rapidly build, test, and scale voice solutions that make brick and mortar retail that much better – for employees and shoppers alike. 

1. Finding and Prioritizing Use Cases & Defining KPIs Against Them

The first step is examining store operations today and finding the inefficiencies – small and large – where employees could be better served with a voice-first approach. When are employees having to walk long distances to get to a destination where they can perform a key function? When do employees need fast, reliable answers that would otherwise rely on inquiring with a colleague? How might training of new employees be simplified? 

Once you know what problems you’re solving, you need to assign key performance indicators (KPIs) against them. Some of these might be obvious and direct – e.g., time saved, frequency of self-service issue resolution (vs. employee-to-employee assistance requests), etc. But others may be less obvious – e.g., increased customer satisfaction and NPS resulting from superior service, reduced employee churn, etc. 

It’s not enough to have a vague idea of a use case. Retailers need to carefully interrogate the current behaviors of their employees (and their customers) to articulate a detailed view of how and why adoption of voice could solve a persistent pain point. For example, some use cases may be powerful in smaller-format stores, while others are better suited to large format. Similarly, employees will vary across markets in their desire and proficiency to use new tools, and any view toward scale needs to factor this variation into planning. 

2. Building Your Tech Stack

While there are off-the-shelf retail-focused voice solutions, retailers risk overpaying for rigid systems that employees can only do so much with. That’s why many retailers are seeing value in a custom approach to building their tech. Determining how you’ll bring a voice solution to life demands a simultaneous consideration of hardware and software, front-end interfaces as well as back-end integrations. Will you use a custom wake word, a push-to-talk solution, or both? Will your voice software sync properly with what might be out-dated systems of record? What Natural Language Processing (NLP) will be most reliable for parsing the intent of your employees’ utterances? What hardware-software solutions will give employees the most utility without being overly complex?  

3. Designing, Prototyping & Testing

Once you’ve selected your tech tooling, it’s time to design and build your application. When designing functional tools for employees, it’s important to consider what it will be like to be power users of these tools. When is dialogue appropriate between a user and an assistant? How can dialogues be as efficient as possible? When is a user best served by purely sonic feedback to their request, and what sonic vocabulary is needed to convey information and express understanding? Once you’ve built a prototype, don’t leave it to your tech team only to test it in a lab store environment. Enroll your prospective users in your tests and allow them to co-create with you. 

While there are off-the-shelf retail-focused voice solutions, retailers risk overpaying for rigid systems that employees can only do so much with.

4. Gaining Buy-In from Leadership, Store Managers, & Associates

There are multiple layers of buy-in needed to translate a solution from a test environment into live stores. Leadership must believe in the business case to test and invest. Store managers must believe in the value proposition for their overall operations, including the potential cost savings, and in the ease of adoption for their frontline associates. Associates can be told of the benefits, but ultimately need to see in practice how any solution can make their jobs easier and better. Enlisting “champions” within store operations can be an effective means of galvanizing employees to try new solutions with an open mind, and know that their feedback will be heard in improving the technology over time.  

5. Measure, Iterate, Scale

When rolling out a voice solution into a pilot store, think about the range of techniques at your disposal to assess effectiveness against the KPIs you’ve defined. First, you have the analytics from your voice solution on the back-end. Have you tagged conversational events in a robust manner, to enable a comparison of things like voice-led information lookup from a database compared to typical employee-to-employee communication around an unknown? Then there are efficiencies that can be measured in terms of distance traveled, through visual tracking or beacons. Are employees able to do more where they are without the need to traverse the store? Then there’s the voice of the employee and the customer. Are they feeling better serviced? How might the solution be improved? Create a roadmap based on these sorts of data points and insights for the next version. Most importantly, don’t assume that a pilot is either a success or a failure. It’s a foundation for improvement, and an iterative mindset is the best way to mature your solutions. 

If you’re excited about the opportunities discussed here and interested in voice-enabling your store’s workforce, please reach out at hello@rain.agency. We’d love to discuss your challenges and build a blueprint for success.