The industry has paid a lot of attention to what stores need to do to reopen, and rightfully so. Big questions loom: how to arrange a store to enforce social distancing, how to provide PPE and sanitation to both employees and customers, new non-touch payment systems and how to provide a lot of plexiglass barriers at cash wraps.
One area that has not received as much attention, though, is the technology. Not the registers and the payment devices – though this kind of tech poses its own problems (spraying down keypads can, in some instances, void the warranty on the device). I’m talking about the software behind the scenes. And while any good IT team knows the things they need to do to start up one store or a handful of stores are different than starting up nearly a whole chain.
In some cases, stores had less than a few hours’ notice they were closing. In other cases, retailers responded to the uneven and varied nature of shutdown orders with what they perceived as temporary hacks that actually turned out to last weeks. Some of these tech issues may not be visible with only 10 percent of stores open, or even 25 percent, but above that level, the issues come home with a vengeance. Here are four hotspots that trip up retail tech.
1. Overcharged or Dead Mobile Devices
Stores operate with more mobile devices than ever before. Devices for inventory, assisted selling, for placing or fulfilling omnichannel orders and sometimes for specialty applications like ordering customized products. As you may sense from the charging capacity of your own mobile phone, overcharging (keeping the device constantly plugged in whether it needs it or not) wrecks your battery. Conversely, devices that were left uncharged over the last several months are all going to need a hard recharge.
Store inventory has been frozen in stores since March. That means a lot of early spring inventory stuck in locations that need to be deep into the summer season and starting to clear out for back to school. Although back to school looms as an uncertainty at this point, further complicating inventory logistics.
Once more traffic comes back to stores, and once more devices get put into a regular rotation, finding out that mobile devices can no longer hold a charge – and either need complete replacement or a new battery, becomes yet another new expense that retailers will have to grapple with.
2. Online Visibility into Store Inventory
For U.S.-based retailers, the uneven nature of state-by-state shutdown orders created a new challenge: the need to turn off stores as ship-from locations to fulfill online demand. Seattle and New York City stores were quickly pulled out of the omnichannel mechanisms that would make their inventory visible to online shoppers. As the vast majority of states shut down, or the retailers themselves opted to shut down all of their stores, the online routing challenges became more complex.
At that point, it’s not a case of turning off each individual store’s inventory systems, it’s a matter of shutting down online visibility into in-store inventory, as well as any orders that would normally be routed to a store for fulfillment. Turning all of that back on requires a large degree of nuance including reestablishing the whole inventory pipeline from stores; regular updates of which stores to individually turn back on, and revisiting assumptions that go into assigning demand to a store to fulfill. Figuring out the balance between online fulfillment and in-store staffing also creates a completely new unpredictable demand model.
Store inventory has been frozen in stores since March. That means a lot of early spring inventory stuck in locations that need to be deep into the summer season starting to clear out for back to school. Although back to school looms as an uncertainty at this point, further complicating inventory logistics.
The more stores can leverage moving inventory now, the less they’re going to need deep discounts – at the same time everyone else is racing to the bottom. Based on changing consumer shopping behaviors, it should be a top priority to ensure stores meet online demand, even if that means keeping more physical customers out of stores as a result.
3. Logs and Alerts
When retailers have lots of stores, managing expectations of the way things can go wrong becomes a key strategy. Fortunately, the monitoring tools to enable expectation management have become pretty sophisticated. Logs can be set up to monitor activities like whether a price file was successfully updated across all stores, and text messages or emails can automatically alert you when something didn’t happen that should have, or if something happened that should not have.
Successful IT managers systematically evaluate all their monitoring logs and alerts they receive on behalf of the management team. If both the monitors and the alerts weren’t checked during the shutdown, when it comes time to reopen, many phones are going to blow up with text messages. And many email inboxes are going to be inundated.
This may seem trivial in the grand scheme of things, but it is the direct consequence of another IT issue: the need to clear out all of the accumulation of file movements, system updates, batch processes, etc. Stores may have been closed, but enterprise technology did not. Clearing out the systems is a critical IT activity, but don’t lose sight of any downstream impacts, like what happens to the people who normally make sure all these files flow smoothly.
4. File Updates
Clearing out systems isn’t just about letting activities that were paused at the store level finally flow through. Stores need to be updated with the latest price and item files. This is trickier than it seems. A lot of inventory and promotion activity is set up in advance on a calendar, with set start dates and sometimes end dates as well.
With store inventory frozen for weeks, planned promotions haven’t happened, new items haven’t arrived, and new markdowns haven’t been taken. While retail planners have been scrambling to figure out which inventory to extend into summer, and which incoming summer inventory to extend into fall, someone also has to figure out what are the most current inventory and price profiles that need to be reflected in stores. Plus, as stores open, their local files have to be updated to reflect the new profiles. It’s already going to be chaos in terms of in-store inventory and prices. It will only be worse if the prices (and the items featured) on the signs in stores don’t match what rings up on the register.