Retail employees must upskill to thrive in future
Mita Srinivasan
10X Technology

Retail employees must upskill to thrive in future

With digitisation reshaping the retail landscape, the future of the industry is unfolding before our very eyes. While online shopping was historically slow to take off in some parts of the MEA region, this is certainly no longer the case. Ramy Fares, Head of Retail & Travel Industries at Microsoft Middle East & Africa shares what retailers must do to help their businesses reshape and their teams to adapt to the changing work environments

With digitisation reshaping the retail landscape, the future of the industry is unfolding before our very eyes. Since the pandemic began and lockdowns ensued, retailers across the Middle East and Africa (MEA) have been forced to rethink the way they do business and, in particular, the way they serve their customers. While online shopping was historically slow to take off in some parts of the MEA region, this is certainly no longer the case.

Research from McKinsey confirms that consumers across the Gulf, South Africa and Turkey are spending a great deal more time shopping online than before COVID-19. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are experiencing particularly high rates of new or increased users in online deliveries, with 95 percent of Saudi Arabians saying they shop online. Meanwhile in South Africa, e-commerce sales grew by 66 percent between 2019 and 2020.

The retail environment is also becoming far more competitive. Customers have access to more information than ever before, all of which is influencing their purchasing decisions. In fact, through a Mastercard study it was revealed more than half of respondents across the region were turning to social media to discover new sellers.

Consumers don’t just want products, they want experiences

It’s hardly any wonder delivering an omni-channel experience is a priority for CEOs in the retail sector. Brand loyalty is no longer simply about the product. Most shoppers are likely to choose retailers based on the experience they are given rather than the product they offer. Research from McKinsey points to value and convenience as the top considerations for consumers when trying new shopping experiences.

Personalisation is also key to providing the experience shoppers want, meaning businesses now need to consider intelligence at every touch point. Already retailers in MEA are integrating AI as part of the instore and offline experience. For example, AI can help notify them of inventory in short supply. This is vital as shoppers will switch to a new store if they don’t find what they are looking for on the shelf.

Migros in Turkey has an AI-powered system that uses image processing to monitor the quantity and quality of stock via cameras in its stores. Using Microsoft Azure Cognitive Services, the retailer can check stock and report on its condition and availability remotely.

To keep pace with these and other trends, retail businesses are investing in new technology at a rapid pace. In fact, amongst all sectors in the Middle East and North Africa, retail now reports the highest spend on technology, according to the IDC.

But the question asked at Microsoft’s recent Microsoft 365 Summit: The Future of Hybrid Work is what does this mean for the future of those who work within the retail industry?

Upskilling employees is key to the adoption of new tech

Thought leaders at the Summit agreed success across all industries begins by placing people - in particular - employees at the centre. The future of work is essentially all about maximising convenience and performance, well-being and productivity.

This is no different for the retail sector, where the rapid adoption of technology taking place requires significant focus on cultural change. According to Accenture, the most immediate workforce challenges retailers experienced at the beginning of the pandemic were three-fold. Aside from dealing with the sudden shift of their corporate employees to remote work – as was the case with so many other industries – retailers also had to worry about ensuring employee safety and navigating the changes to the operating norms of their physical stores and supply chains. Adding to the complication has been the constant disinfection of everything within their physical stores from the products themselves to shopping carts and pay points, ultimately leading to increased employee fatigue.

With such a significant portion of the retail workforce comprised of frontline workers, a major point of focus for retailers has been addressing the needs of their frontline staff, particularly when it comes to digital upskilling. In fact, one of the biggest issues identified by retail CEOs in the region has been the shortage of digital talent in the market. As it stands, around half of CEOs across the sector say talent and training is a key business priority.

This is hardly surprising. When frontline workers lack the tools they need, they encounter major challenges – such as difficulty collaborating with colleagues. Already, 64 percent of middle managers across MEA say they are battling to create a strong team culture in this new world of hybrid work. It’s critical that store associates are equipped with mobile devices and can check instore inventory in real-time, otherwise they lack the critical information needed about products. This is especially the case at a time when consumers potentially have more access to product information than they do.

In fact, retailers who digitally enable frontline workers have more satisfied customers, more competitive brands, and sell more products than their competitors.

Using a single platform such as Microsoft Dynamics 365 Commerce across the organisation can go a long way to empowering employees. As in the case of Migros’ Azure-based AI system, providing employees with tools that grant them access to updated knowledge of product inventory will help to delight customers. Arming frontline workers with intelligent technology can also help to reduce repetitive tasks and enhance operational efficiency.

Equally key is for retailers to enable their brand ambassadors to better understand their customers and engage personally with them to increase customer satisfaction.

A good example of this is the Dubai-based Al-Futtaim Group, which has been able to consolidate its customer data and build comprehensive profiles by developing a customer data platform (CDP) on Microsoft Azure. These personalised data insights give the company a better understanding of customer behaviour and create new opportunities for Al-Futtaim employees to upsell and cross-sell.

While technology will undoubtedly play a fundamental role in reshaping the future of the retail industry, business leaders cannot afford to forget that employees must be placed at the centre of this journey for their efforts to succeed. As with businesses in so many other industries, retailers that want to thrive in a post-pandemic world must not just reimagine the employee experience, but digitally reimagine the experience all-together.