” The retail market is changing, but the 2013 AERO (Achieving Excellence in Retail Operations) study, shows that the priorities remain the same.”
“Increasingly, where one shops will be irrelevant,” USA Today wrote last summer in one of those typical death-of-the-physical-store features full of anticipation about how augmented reality, phone- based payment systems, and 3-D printers will change the very fabric of life. And some-times it does seem that change is coming so fast that it is shaking the very foundations of traditional institutions. Just as managers gain familiarity with basic point-of-sale (POS) data, dozens of new sources for data—and uses for it—proliferate. Just as online shopping channels finally become accepted, mobile channels materialize to take some of their traffic. Just as one form of new in-store technology (such as handheld scanners for inventory management) gains acceptance, another dozen tools (from tablets to digital price displays) clamor for deployment. Given this pace of change, it’s tempting to believe that the future of retail really is somewhere else.
Certainly as we developed A.T. Kearney’s 2013 Achieving Excellence in Retail Operations (AERO) study, we were aware of the huge changes that had occurred just since our previous study in 2010.
Three years ago, we did not ask retailers anything about social networking. We covered far fewer options for deploying technologies to customers—and for getting information back from them. And although we asked about multiple channels, the notion of integrated channel retailing was at best a distant mirage.
But look what happened with our results in 2013 : Despite the changes, the AERO study demonstrates the importance of many traditional core principles of retailing. It confirms that running a successful retail operation is all about people: employees, customers, and the interactions among them. One of the biggest secrets to success is the simple notion of engagement: listening to your staff and your customers. Another is cutting back on administrative burdens to get managers out in the field. And although the new wealth of technologies and available data is a great boon, often the most productive uses of it are in addressing familiar challenges such as managing shrink and out-of-stocks.
Sure, it is both fun and important to look at new technologies and the insights you can gain from them. Yes, there is some value in the gee-whiz imaginings of a Jetsons-like retail future. But when you dig deep into what actually generates profits for today’s most successful retail companies, it turns out that they’re simply good at what great retailers have always been good at: the nuts and bolts of operations. They identify the right metrics, analyze them appropriately, and act intelligently. They support field leadership with tools and processes to improve their decision making. They rely on, and seek insights from, front-line staff. And they view technology as neither a threat nor a toy, but as a tool that better enables them to achieve ancient ambitions such as customer insight, operations efficiency, and customer service.
In a sense, then, the more things change, the more they stay the same. In an information-soaked environment, amid the emergence of multiple retail channels, it’s important to understand how to take advantage of the changes. But it’s equally important to keep a finger on the pulse of core principles: people, customers, and physical store layouts.
This report examines the insights from our 2013 AERO Study to show how retailers are turning great operations into profits.
Measure, Analyze & Act :
Everybody aspires to use information more effectively. With the increased availability of all sorts of data on all sorts of issues, people want to be smart about taking advantage of it. But some struggle to turn that desire into execution. Such is the case in retail. The AERO study shows that retail leaders are much better than followers at collecting data, measuring activities, acting on their insights, and measuring again to see the results. In short, they have mastered a principle we call Measure, Analyze, and Act.
Voice of the customer –
Retail leaders effectively apply this principle in the crucial area of the voice of the customer. Although most retailers do a solid job of examining point-of-sale (POS) data, few use other data sources, such as traffic-flow analyses or customer intercepts, to access customer opinions (see figure 1).
In particular, we found that few retailers value social-network data. Fewer than half even bother to collect it from third-party domains, and just 8 percent say it is very important in generating insights. Likewise, retailers don’t take full advantage of direct customer contact data through call centers or store employees. More than half still do not regularly mine their loyalty program data—30 percent say they only look at the data once a year—especially ironic since most loyalty programs are designed to reward customers for the right to track their data. Respondents cited workforce capabilities and technology as the main barriers to tracking this loyalty data—a theme we’ll pick up in “Enable with Technology” below.
In a sense, the study provides two lessons here. First, at the granular level, there are many underutilized sources of customer data, and retailers may need to invest more in the technology and skills to take advantage of them more effectively. Second, in the bigger picture, the more successful retailers are not only using more data, but they focus on the principle of Measure, Analyze, and Act. Their leaders encourage measuring the right data, invest in the skills to gain insights from that data, and use those insights effectively to frame future actions.
Store and channel management :
Leading retailers excel at managing their stores and channels with strong operational and employee metrics. As customers use multiple channels and bricks-and-mortar store revenues decline, most retailers have correctly identified that they must move beyond multi-channel retailing and begin integrating those channels. But our study finds that few retailers have achieved real integration. Many services that a genuinely integrated multi-channel retailer would offer, such as the ability to buy a product online and pick it up in-store, or visibility into inventories from other channels, are offered by less than half of the retailers in our study.
A big problem is that although we live in a cross-channel world, few retailers have access to cross-channel metrics (see figure 2). With the voice of the customer, the big issue is analyzing and acting on a wealth of data; in store and channel management, the key is having the right data in the first place.
For example, consider employee incentives. Many managers have studied the same metrics, such as revenue or gross margin generated at POS, for 20 years. But an integrated channel environment requires new employee behaviors not reflected in these metrics, such as supporting a customer in ordering an out-of-stock item through a different channel. When employees are rarely measured on the success of non-store channels, they have little incentive to encourage their growth. Encouraging new employee behaviors requires new incentives, based on new metrics. In short, as strategies change, metrics must change with them. Again, the focus needs to be on Measure, Analyze, and Act—all three effectively.
Out-of-stock performance :
Leading retailers use the Measure, Analyze, and Act principle to improve operational performance, for example reducing the percentage of out-of-stocks. Respondents who set in-stock goals at the stock-keeping unit (SKU) level, rather than by store, category, or subcategory, perform 47 percent better on this key operational issue (see figure 3). Why? Because they know when an important SKU is out of stock. When you aggregate out-of-stocks to the store level, you may not know that that you’re missing a particularly high-volume or high-margin SKU, so your overall out-of-stock performance will seem better than it really is.
By measuring in greater detail, leaders are better able to identify and address problems.
The sources of data are proliferating in our fast-changing retail environment. But as always, what matters is not so much using lots of data, but rather using the right data. When you put energy into defining what you’re measuring, you get a truer picture of your performance, and results improve.
Shrink management :
Another key operational issue, managing inventory shrinkage, can also be powered by analytics. Again, you get what you measure. The one-third of retailers that don’t have shrink as a key measurement cannot analyze it or act on it, which means they won’t be very effective at managing the issue.
Figure 4, below highlights leading practices for managing shrink. Establishing shrink targets by category is especially valuable because some categories are particularly large contributors to shrink. Again, knowing how and where to Measure, Analyze, and Act can greatly improve efficiency.
Peak season management :
Measure, Analyze, and Act also applies to managing stores during peak seasons. Analytic tools can effectively predict peaks, giving you the power to act aggressively to increase staffing and otherwise maximize peak volumes (see figure 5). Leading retailers not only make larger increases in labor hours during peaks, which lead to larger revenues during peaks, but they also ramp down more quickly. Managing peaks is not only about getting more revenue out of the peak, but also about not wasting those revenues on inefficient post-peak operations. Leaders have used measurements and analysis to know with confidence when the peak is over, and they act accordingly.
Unleashing Field Leadership :
To drive store performance, retailers have always depended heavily on field managers. Yet these crucial employees face ever-more-difficult challenges and need more support to do their jobs effectively. The AERO study finds that across the board—at the district and regional level and above—managers are overseeing more stores. Implemented effectively, increasing spans of control can save the company money. But performance will suffer unless the additional responsibility is accompanied by a change in the type of work managers are asked to do.
The AERO study shows that field managers are spending too much time on administration, and not enough actually in the field (see figure 6). Indeed, field managers spend more time on administration than on interacting with customers, coaching staff, and looking at the condition of their stores—combined. Yet, it is these field-based activities that create value. Retailers must seek to reduce their managers’ administrative burden.
Although the average Store-Manager’s administrative burden is likely not so obviously skewed, even these managers would benefit their companies by coaching staff or interacting with customers. They too would benefit from better tools and processes to help them perform their administrative duties more quickly and efficiently. For example, one-third of store managers do labor scheduling without guidelines from headquarters—and they use many different practices, from Excel spreadsheets to custom applications to pen and paper. The different practices can lead to errors and inefficiency that better guidelines and support from headquarters could easily reduce.
One valuable form of support is training. AERO results show that the leading firms give field managers training in financial and human resources (HR) skills almost 90 percent of the time—but for the followers, those numbers are just 43 percent for financial and 67 percent for HR. More training means better decision making. It also means that managers higher up the ladder are better able to delegate, because they can trust their sub-managers to accomplish these tasks successfully.
Don’t Leave the Front Line Behind :
The front-line staff interacts with customers all day long—gaining valuable insights into customer needs along the way. For example, when customers want products that a store doesn’t carry, that data will not easily show up in many metrics, but the employees they spoke to will know. However, few retailers take full advantage of these insights.
Front-line staff has always been closest to the customer, and that hasn’t changed. Successful retailers have always been, and remain, those that best take advantage of these staffers’ insights. This issue perhaps best encapsulates the irony we discussed in the introduction: that with the myriad new developments and challenges today, fundamental principles can get lost. The problem today is a lack of formal requirements or processes to gather these employee insights. Simply hoping that employees will tell their supervisors (who will tell their supervisors, who will tell theirs, and so on) isn’t enough. Zara and Best Buy are rightly lauded for creating formal pipelines that capture and use employee insights.
Employee satisfaction surveys are also underutilized. Happy employees make for happy customers, but employee metrics are not well represented on standard performance measures (see figure 7).
A ” balanced scorecard ” should truly balance all dimensions of performance, but many scorecards overemphasize financials at the expense of indirect measures such as employee satisfaction that can also impact future financial results.
Since employees’ customer skills are so important, shouldn’t this talent figure more prominently in the hiring process? Half of all retailers have no customer experience skills testing (see figure 8).
Again,” Retailing ” is a “people-oriented business” , and successful retailers find great, people-oriented employees.
Additionally, few retailers create dedicated change management programs to help their employees prepare for new initiatives (see figure 9). While the vast majority say they use training, metrics, dedicated teams, and follow-up measurements, only 19 percent say they include dedicated change management programs as part of pilots and initiative roll-outs.
Enable with Technology :
Many retailers are buying technology as an answer to their problems. The leaders stand out, however, because they also know the question. They obtain technology with a clear view of what they hope to accomplish.
Customer-facing technology is a hot topic, and many retailers plan to invest more in it (see figure 10). In part, these heavy levels of investment reflect the fact that deployment of customer-facing technology is limited. Still, few retailers are convinced of the effectiveness of these technologies. For nearly all of the technologies listed in figure 10 (other than self-serve order terminals), fewer than 20 percent of retailers rate any of them as highly effective. It’s a bit puzzling that companies would invest in technologies that they have not yet seen to be effective. We believe the issue is that these retailers don’t understand their effectiveness because they don’t know how to measure the success of these tools. Devoting more attention to the goals they hope to accomplish with the tools will lead to ways to measure their effectiveness in achieving those goals.
For example, a retailer hoping to gather more meaningful customer insights might identify a lack of technology as a barrier to that goal, and thus invest to achieve it. Which technologies will effectively analyze, for example, loyalty data? How will you know when these tools are working ? Asking these questions helps target the best technology investments, whether the goal is customer insights, channel integration, or operations efficiency.
To date, operational efficiency technologies have demonstrated clearer benefits than customer-facing technologies. Tools such as handheld scanners for inventory management, labor scheduling applications, customer traffic flow technology, tablets or similar devices, and time-attendance solutions all have higher levels of adoption and higher effectiveness ratings. AERO respondents expect to increase their use of tablets, in particular, for purposes ranging from POS solutions to product displays.
The More Things Change.. :
Fifty years ago, some of today’s retail technologies would have been inconceivable. To think that most homes would have a computer through which you could search for, examine, and purchase items without ever having to go to the store… and yet similar alternatives actually did exist. Substituting the word “catalog” for “computer” could show that, to borrow USA Today’s words, “where one shops [has been] irrelevant” for decades. And yet over all of these years, shoppers have preferred the in-person store experience.
We can’t predict what technologies will be available in 50 years—or even five years. As options proliferate, bricks-and-mortar stores may indeed play a smaller role. But at heart, retail is a people business, with traditional principles that center on maximizing the value of human interactions. As always, retailers should seek to improve analytics to drive better performance, support field leaders to reduce their administrative burdens, highlight the value of their front-line staff, and achieve meaningful goals.
Despite the latest inventions—or even because of them—the fundamental principles represent the soundest road to success..