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Future WorkForce Director on how RPA can help SMEs with online retail growth

Future WorkForce Director on how RPA can help SMEs with online retail growth

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With the COVID-19 pandemic having accelerated the need for SMEs to adopt automation as customer demands ramp up, retailers are keen to identify technologies that will help them obtain a competitive advantage. Alastair Roriston, UK Sales Director, Future WorkForce, discusses how Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is being used in the retail sector and how retailers scaling with intelligent automation are seeing significant improvements across multiple business divisions.

Retailers are rapidly adopting Robotic Process Automation (RPA) as they look to improve customer experience, supply chains, marketing and business operations to meet changing market conditions. 

While successive lockdowns and social distancing restrictions accelerated online retail growth, the effect on retailer operations is not temporary. Many SMEs have had to develop websites and commence e-commerce operations to stay in business. It was expected that by 2023 online sales would account for a quarter of the overall retail industry. The global pandemic brought that figure forward and in May 2021 the UK’s ONS reported that 28.4% of retail sales were online. 

Today’s consumers are becoming more demanding, which is against the difficulty retailers have been experiencing post-Brexit and during the pandemic. Not only do consumers expect a faster digital shopping experience without error, but they also want impeccable customer service. So how is RPA helping the SME retail sector? 

A consumer’s purchase of goods is the concluding step of a comprehensive supply chain. Each link in the chain adds to the cost of goods sold. Therefore, anything that reduces cost or improves the service deliverable optimises the retailers’ profit margins and enhances the consumer experience. 

RPA is being used in retail to support teams in various parts of the operation, from inventory management, human resources, supply chain, order and returns processing, store planning, contract management and delivery logistics. Although most of the attention for RPA focuses around the large retailers it also has a part to play for SMEs. By automating parts of these processes, improved efficiencies are being created along the supply chain, which means staff have more time to focus on improving customer service and more strategic issues. 

Retailers can also expect efficiencies from intelligent automation in supporting areas like hiring, payroll, training and health and safety. 

For SMEs, there are companies that will set up intelligent automation on a monthly subscription basis so that there is no huge upfront cost. Many SME retailers are using these services to complete repetitive, manual, day to day processes. It’s saving them hours of time per week, increasing employee satisfaction and delivering valuable business data. 

So, let’s look in more detail at how RPA can help in specific areas. 

Supply chain management 

Logistics and supply chain management are at the heart of retail activities. Several processes are involved, such as inventory level monitoring, customer support, shipment, order status tracking and reverse shipment. By deploying RPA to automate logistics and supply chain processes, the positive business outcomes are improved collaboration between suppliers, customers and distributors.  

Inventory management  

Traditional inventory management systems could not offer real-time information on stock levels, but RPA can. By automating inventory processes, retailers can immediately see when stock levels are low, preventing ‘stock-out’ situations and allowing them to have better relationships with suppliers and customers.  

Order and returns processing 

Validation and transfer of documents is an extravagant use of company resources. The necessary information can be relayed to relevant personnel or departments at lightning-fast speeds using RPA. Software robots validate documents of different types and formats faster and more accurately, freeing staff to focus on exception handling. A combination of humans and technology improves speed, mitigates downstream data risk and safeguards intellectual property better than ever before. 

Invoice processing  

Processing invoices is often a time-consuming, repetitive task. Automating these tasks with RPA, such as collecting information, segregating data and processing invoices becomes much faster and free of human error. 

Business and sales analytics 

Data is vital for multiple retail decisions, such as trade promotions, churn rate and product introductions. RPA can provide real-time reports based on customer preferences and user behaviour regarding a product or product features which can then be used to plan and then assess how effective marketing campaigns are in real-time. This ability to gain insights into data in real-time means the retailer can respond to customer demand more quickly, resulting in improved sales. 

Store planning 

A tremendous amount of effort and data analysis about customer preferences and habits goes into store planning. Using RPA, retail stores can lay out their stores to encourage sales, meet customer expectations and improve their shopping experience. All of which has a positive impact on sales.    

Customer support and call centres 

Chatbots and conversational AI are transforming the customer service function. With the help of the latest conversational AI, chatbots are now able to handle complex conversations with customers, respond to their questions about tracking orders and payments, and provide updates on product launches, discounts, price change and so forth. All of this can be done 24/7 without human interaction, which is improving customer service and responding to the ‘always on’ culture that consumers now expect. 

There are so many processes that can be automated in retail. When processes are automated, staff can focus on adding value in more complex and strategic roles. Positive business outcomes for SME retailers include: 

  • First-time right time delivery 
  • Improved customer experience 
  • Enhanced inventory management 
  • Mitigation of risk and compliance issues 
  • Reduced operational costs 

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the need for SMEs to adopt automation because customer demands outweigh the ability for current infrastructures and staffing levels to support them.

According to PwC, seven out of 10 CEOs plan to drive growth via cost reductions. It’s now time that all retailers, large or small, rapidly adopt automation to maximise customer satisfaction and compete against the competition. 

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