How technology can help solve retail staff shortages

by Mark Thomson. Globally, retailers are currently challenged by a shortage of labour at every level, from delivery drivers to store associates.

by Mark Thomson. Retail has in many ways bounced back from pandemic-triggered instabilities and is settling into a new environment – one in which physical and digital operations are highly codependent. Consumers now expect a seamless experience between stores and online; and are increasingly placing orders online because of better product availability and more convenience.

Yet retailers are currently challenged by a shortage of labour at every level, from delivery drivers to store associates. As a result, they must often be prepared to do more with fewer resources, including handling irregular deliveries and replenishment schedules; and managing available inventory for maximum efficiency and sales. All of this while dealing with multiple fulfillment channels and processes.

The key to meeting customers’ expectations and overcoming the challenges resulting from the delivery driver shortage in particular, is to invest in technology solutions that integrate analytics, inventory monitoring, and workflow management to optimise overall operations.

Meeting consumers’ evolving omnichannel expectations

Last year, by necessity, much of consumer shopping shifted to online or mobile commerce (mcommerce) platforms; and retail stalled altogether in categories that held less relevance to people who were no longer going to offices or social events. As pandemic restrictions continue to lift, brick-and-mortar stores are experiencing some of the pent-up demand built up over a year spent at home. Now, stores are trying to balance ecommerce and in-store inventory to ensure they have enough of the right products to fulfill orders on either side. But managing returns from all channels creates even more complexity.

Retailers that can effectively use technology to gather data from all across their internal operations and supply chains will be able to better prepare for surges in consumer demand and avoid empty shelves. This is especially true if they can monitor sales trends to gauge individual SKU performance from day to day or know when delays may occur to make better staffing and sourcing decisions. Prescriptive analytics; real-time inventory visibility; and digitised workforce management tools are vital to optimising retail operations, helping stores and warehouses ensure they have the right people and inventory in the right places at the right time. These technologies deliver retail agility which helps to offset the impact of uncontrollable industry disruptions such as the current delivery driver shortage.

Enabling more accurate inventory counts and increasing workflow efficiency

Much of the technology available to retailers is maturing at a rapid speed. As retailers add more digital channels that require fulfillment from store shelves, such as buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS) and click and collect; having an accurate inventory count becomes more critical than ever for retailers. Therefore, stores must be empowered to complete smart cycle counting on a more regular cadence whilst improving workflow efficiency – something that can be equally achieved by investing in the right mobile devices and software or introducing automation.

Many retailers are also bringing technology once reserved for the warehouse or back of the store to the front of the store. Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology is an increasingly popular solution for apparel, sporting goods, and electronics retailers. RFID tagging enables faster and less labour-intensive inventory management for weekly, daily, or even real-time counts, and can also help facilitate faster returns processing and inventory reshelving. RFID is bringing new levels of visibility to store stock and by both improving availability for shoppers and helping to facilitate fulfilment from store without the need for manual counts.

Visibility for retail agility 

Intelligent inventory and workforce management solutions work together to improve store productivity, despite external challenges such as the delivery driver shortage and spikes in demand. The real-time visibility provided into sales data and the movement of goods across the supply chain enables retailers to assign tasks more strategically to the right associates at the right time. Ultimately, these solutions help merchants make better procurement and labour scheduling decisions to help ensure they can always keep up with consumer demand, whether shopping online or in store.


Main image credit: Photo by Alex Mecl on Unsplash.



Mark Thomson is Director of Retail and Hospitality Solutions EMEA, Zebra Technologies (formerly Motorola Solutions). Thomson’s exploration of the global retail landscape helps retailers gain a focus on what’s real and what works when building a retail strategy in a digital world. He works closely with retailers and hospitality businesses on developing a vision for their retail business that aims to improve customer experience and drive business efficiencies.


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