Can RPA keep the lights on in the high street?
By Giap Bui (Ryan), Founder and CEO of akaBot, FPT Software
- As margins are squeezed, can RPA reduce costs?
- As consumers blend high street and on-line shopping, can RPA make it seamless?
- As consumers become more demanding, can RPA improve customer service?
- If RPA could save the high street, can it be deployed in time to switch on the lights?
High street retailers have been struggling for most of this century. Now accentuated by COVID, facing a potential profit loss of 11billion euros between 2019 and 2025 in key European markets, retail trades plummeted: trading activities in the UK were 20% down from February to April 2020, France 27%, Spain and Italy 33% and US 16%. The COVID pandemic forced many to close their doors to customers, some never to open again, but it also made many rethink their online offering and a few to take a step back and re-evaluate their high street offering too. As recovery begins, there are many uncertainties, not least future outbreaks of COVID mutations, faltering consumer confidence, changes in the structure and practices of the labour market and stumbling recovery of the global supply chain. Those that are most likely to survive and thrive online and on the high street are almost certainly implementing Robotic Process Automation (RPA). Not humanoid robots on the tills but software technology that makes it easy to build, deploy, and manage software robots that emulate human actions, interacting with digital systems and software, especially those having multiple manual, labour-intensive routine operations. The adoption of RPA offers quick, cost-effective benefits, from the reduction of, particularly, back-office employees, costs, risks, and errors to create significantly higher efficiency.
With all the pandemic-related uncertainty, it seemed unlikely that the biggest immediate problem for retail would be staffing. Yet, according to Deloitte’s 2022 retail industry outlook, 83% of retailers are investing most heavily in employee recruitment and retention, finding the issues go far deeper than merely salaries as priorities have shifted for employees. With over one million retail jobs unfilled according to the same Deloitte report, now would seem to be a good time to look at how the business could be managed with a much smaller workforce and the highest possible priority given to customer facing employees and the support they need for maximum effectiveness.
It may come as a surprise that 40% of business activities can be automated, so there are many areas where retailers can apply RPA. Customer service staff are usually burdened with routine tasks that can easily be automated using RPA, for example, inventory management is a back-office procedure that can be extremely labour-intensive, while Bots can pick up order details automatically, add them to the database and send an auto-generated confirmation email to the concerned stakeholder. In the same way, Bots can reconcile delivery notes with invoices, monitor stock levels and execute predetermined reorder instructions plus a host of other simple routine activities in purchasing, warehouse, store management, accounting and finance, logistics, human resource management, customer service and IT. One of the great things about Bots is that they can operate application programming interfaces (APIs) independently, so RPA solutions can act as an intermediary between new and old systems. They can talk to both legacy software systems and new software. RPA bots can also harmonize SKU data from multiple markets to be able to look beyond numbers to insights, automating the process to save thousands of hours of work.
The omnichannel experience
The pandemic has accelerated changing consumer behaviour as they move to an omnichannel shopping experience: browse online, buy in-shop or vice versa; order online collect in shop; order in shop for delivery; check what’s local on mobile; use price comparison sites and check out top buy listings. Consumers have no barriers between high street shopping and online shopping, unlike too many retailers, who run them as separate businesses and often set them in competition with each other, instead of seeing how one can attract business to the other and push for complementary purchases or impulse buys. One of the factors in failing to homogenise the business is that high street often has legacy systems that can’t talk to the newer software running online businesses. As mentioned above, this is simple to address with Bots that can interface between the two. Of course, there are other factors: the sudden shift in operating model that saw 70% of respondents reporting shopping online more often and retailers rushing to digital with increased investment in online platforms, whilst costs of physical stores remained unchanged. Retailers may operate on a lower margin (3.7% forecast for the European market by 2025) but pure online retailers run on even thinner margins (average 1.4% in the EU) so these online specialists were given an edge by the pandemic, with some entering the super 25 (those accounting for 90% of the retail sector’s market-cap increase). Juggling all of this requires more data, analysed more quickly, providing more clarity of impacts; all of which can be provided by RPA at very low relative cost. Bots, for instance, can generate reports that give visibility to the performance of promotions in real time, ensure that stock is where it needs to be and that reorders are timely. Some retailers rely on legacy systems for stock keeping; RPA bots can perform constant checks on these systems providing data on key metrics like items with low stock levels or rapidly changing stock levels.
Serving the customers
Call centres are at the heart of many aspects of customer service and Bots can provide support to customer service staff: Bots can immediately route the call to the appropriate support call centre agents by pulling out customer data, purchasing history or any other information needed, thus reducing average call handling time. In addition, bots can trigger specific actions after a call request is completed. Enhanced bots, Chatbots, are available 24/7/365, can answer all calls instantly, are a single point of contact (no drilling down through a menu of options) and provide instant accurate responses based on any information that is in the databases to which they have access. Mordor Intelligence forecasts that the chatbot market, valued at USD 17.17 billion in 2020, will reach USD 102.29 billion by 2026, a CAGR of 34.75% over the forecast period. According to Salesforce, 69% of consumers prefer to speak to chatbots for the speed at which they can communicate with a brand. According to MIT technology review, 90% of businesses reported faster complaints resolution with chatbots. Chatbots can simulate a conversation (or a chat) with a user in natural language through messaging applications, websites, mobile apps, or the telephone.
However, if you add artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning ML) you move the project to the level of hyper automation and, in many processes, it can replace the human element almost entirely. “Hyper Automation has shifted from an option to a condition of survival,” says Fabrizio Biscotti, research vice-president at Gartner.
Among the most impactful workflow and productivity tools, Hyper Automation is changing the game by enabling most manual tasks to be automated in just minutes; such as, collecting customer data or enquiry from many sources; classifying, allocating to related departments; solving customers’ problems. These combination tools will leverage customer service to the next level of speed and quality. Hyper Automation is enhancing end-customer experience along three main themes: supporting businesses to provide ‘WOW services’ by solving customers’ problems in minutes; accelerating business operation optimization by providing customers the right answer from the right helpers in the quickest time; facilitating customers to help themselves through personalized supporting guidelines or virtual agents. Retailers can stay on top of customer satisfaction with automation and prioritization through systems that enrich the common issue-solving library. Staff have more time to focus on challenging tasks and uncommon issues. Automation also collects, analyses and predicts events that make customers unhappy and solves them, often by stopping them happening at all.
RPA offers higher business agility and a fast return on investment. However, despite widespread global adoption, EY research reveals that 30 to 50% of initial RPA projects fail, with the common reason being the poor preparation for the automation journey. In order to develop a plan it is vital for businesses to develop a thorough understanding and comprehensive evaluation of their needs and readiness. The IT requirements review should consider technical support, maintenance, security and data standards, hardware and software, licensing fees and implementation costs. A proof-of-concept (PoC) engagement can help an enterprise to achieve a clearer observation on the targeted automation solution by allowing the team in charge to see whether it will work in the confines of business’s customized environment. A POC can be conducted quickly with little investment and minimal technology process expertise, therefore it is a great way to fully assess and start an enterprise-wide automation program. The RPA technology creates a digital workforce working side-by-side with human employees to streamline operations and accelerate business activities, success depends on people adopting and adapting. According to KPMG, RPA implementation can lead to operational cost reductions of up to 75%.
Bots can be configured to track data migration as it happens and can therefore spot any anomalies or low-quality data, and rectify the errors in real-time; one Bot, in this context, equates to 100 manual testers, enabling rigorous system testing with little time and effort and minimal errors before the system goes live. A penny saved is a penny earned with RPA as every reduction in costs goes 100% straight to the bottom line. Retailers must optimize every resource. RPA through Bots, chatbots and hyper automation can reduce costs, improve efficiency and generate a better retail experience for staff and customers both online and in-store.
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