How to dominate the digitization of retail with empowered associates
What should retail leaders be thinking about as they prioritize agility and digital transformation?
Empowering their associates with creative and functional flexibility that allows them to perform their best, deliver for their business and ultimately better serve the customer, according to Jordan Berke, the founder and CEO of Tomorrow Retail Consulting.
As our keynote speaker during AxoniCom RETAIL, Berke leaned on his 20 years of experience—including leading Walmart China’s e-commerce and in-store digital efforts—to offer insights into how to navigate the rapid, and unstoppable, transformation of retail.
Berke unpacked some of his key findings during a Q&A with Axonify’s co-founder and CRO Christine Tutssel and shared how retail leaders should be safeguarding their ability to be continuously nimble for the future.
Christine: As we look at this whole digitization concept and really allow our associates to be empowered and drive that agility, there are some core concepts that people are struggling with. What would you say to retailers that are struggling with the litigious side of BYOD and its challenges?
Jordan: What we have found, not only when I was a leader at Walmart but even since then with clients now, is that BYOD is a critical shift. It unlocks so much potential engagement and innovation.
I would say, first, find a way to enable it in your stores. Because not only does it give your associates the chance to constantly get upgraded learning experiences, but many of your retail peers are already so leaned into it that they’re actually buying associates their own devices. For example, Walmart is funding devices for any associates that want them. We’re now in a moment where every associate should have a mobile device and that device becomes the key engagement platform for you as a retailer with that associate.
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Christine: Talk a little bit more about the flex workforce and what you mean by that. Is that when employees get to choose what hours they work? Is it gig workers that come in and do some work and then they might only work for the business for a short period of time?
Jordan: The “flex force” is defined as associates that are not employed directly by the retailer on a traditional shift-based employment. They are employed either as a contract employee or through a third party where their commitment is to take shifts based on their availability. It’s not pre scheduled two weeks out, the way it is for some permanent employees. Each day at 6pm, the retailer will make available the work that is needed the next day. And the flex associates will go on the app and be able to take a shift based on their availability and capability.
Again, that might be something that the retailer organizes themselves. They have the technological capability to facilitate on-demand labor like that. Or in more cases, they’re using third parties that are built to do that. What we did was work with essentially the “Uber of China” at Walmart to enable that in our stores. Amazon uses their own flex app to facilitate it. It can come in different shapes.
Christine: If you had to pick the top kind of one or two lessons you learned in China, what would they be, in terms of the digitization that’s going on?
Jordan: The first big lesson I learned is that frontline associates can be a strategic advantage in this omnichannel world. And that may sound cliché, but it’s reality in the sense that our ability to serve customers fast, fresh and accurately is entirely dependent upon the engagement and focus of our frontline teams. We got very passionate across the Walmart world and embraced that our store teams really can be a competitive advantage if we enable them, empower them and appreciate them.
The second big piece in China is everything that can go digital, will go digital. The consumer will end up in a digital experience, whether that’s shopping from home or even shopping in-store using our app. So, our associates expect us to be digital in how we engage with them, too. Our associate engagement programs were more like social media programs than traditional employee communications programs, but embracing that digital-first, digital-only mindset is a big factor in the Chinese market that we’re seeing now permeate globally.
Christine: It doesn’t matter what kind of retailer you are—you need to be prepared to play in your space and have this personalized experience for your clientele or your customers.
Jordan: Right. We believe that five years from now, the only reason you and I will walk into a physical store is because there’s a unique experience that gives us something that’s hard to get in a 2D virtual environment. And a lot of that’s going to be the human element. So being able to activate those humans and make them such a differentiator is critical and now’s the time to be learning and expanding that.
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Christine: So how do you get your associates up to speed to make this fundamental shift from, say, folding shirts to interacting with customers and being comfortable in that space?
Jordan: Well, it’s certainly not an overnight step. It’s about having the empathy to understand that associates changing their roles and responsibilities takes support and the right level of tooling and education.
But what’s exciting is that if you can get the tooling and the education right, and if you can really put the energy into engaging your frontline teams, you’re going to see a lot of associates get really excited about these new opportunities. We’re seeing—globally—store associates that are taking their own initiative to start live-streaming on TikTok or YouTube even if their retailer hasn’t taken that step themselves yet. In our experience, if you can be empathetic and really understand where your associate is now and come to them with the right journey to where their professional future’s going, they’re more likely to embrace it, and be invested or excited about it.
Christine: Could you share some retailers you’ve seen embracing these key trends today as leaders in the market?
Jordan: First, let’s talk about labor. We’re excited to see in the US, certainly Amazon and Walmart have been very innovative in this space. Walmart has rolled out Spark, which is its own flex delivery platform that it’s now providing to other retailers. Amazon Flex. Metro in Canada also excitingly just rolled out Uber as a flex picking solution in its stores. So, if you’re ordering from a Metro in your community, you’ll have it be picked by an Uber driver.
On the side of amplifying voices and finding ways to get associates really excited, a lot of progress is happening in the teen apparel market. PacSun has been interesting, and so has Forever 21. Forever 21’s also been taking advantage of the Metaverse where it has engaged its associates to go in and create Metaverse stores and earn commission off those. Sephora’s my final example, because what Sephora’s really shown us is the power of having great customer data and utilizing that data to enhance the in-store experience. They’re giving their in-store associates a lot of guidance on how to care face-to-face with their customer. But they’ve also got this great in-store app that, as a customer visiting a location, gives you personalized beauty recommendations. They’ll tell you which of your favorite items are in stock, what’s on promotion, etc. It’s not only the associate benefiting from all the great tech advancements, but it’s also the consumer.
There’s a lot to consider with tech-enabled strategies and policies that can spell increased flexibility for associates—and their employers. But embracing the change and moving away from traditional methods of training, communication and enablement models that don’t work the way the retail frontline does is ultimately what will keep your organization agile and competitive. With streamlined access to information, resources and devices that empower associates to succeed, they’ll be better equipped to provide singular experiences for customers both virtually and IRL.