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How automation can help retailers digitally transform in the new year

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Venu Kannan, global vice president, Domain and Applications Practice, UiPath, maps out reasons why retails should be seriously considering automation to meet rising consumer demands.

While brick-and-mortar shopping has been losing its retail stronghold for some time now, the 2020 holiday’s sopping period underscored how dramatically the ongoing pandemic increased e-commerce’s popularity. 

According to a PYMNTS’ Black Friday 2020 Report, more consumers shopped online last Black Friday than ever before. While the coronavirus is a large factor in this shift, retailers can expect the pressure on e-commerce to persist into the new year and beyond; the report also found that while 47% of shoppers surveyed did opt to shop online out of fear of catching COVID-19, a larger 68% justified the move simply as online shopping being easier. 

Just as they would when shopping in store, consumers expect a premium experience when engaging with brands online — though that experience can be jeopardized if retailers are overwhelmed with fulfilling cascades of customer requests virtually. To meet rising consumer demands while also establishing an infrastructure for success in the long term, retailers should consider automation. 

The holiday bustle may be subsiding, but retailers who are able to stay competitive during these challenging times will be those who can work fast and efficiently which makes automation key. With the ability to streamline tedious retail processes such as fielding inbound inquiries and managing customer data, automation enables sales and customer service representatives to focus on more strategic activities that can increase conversion rates and strengthen customer relationships. 

Here’s how automation can fuel enduring success for retailers amid the accelerated shift to a digital economy: 

Enhance the employee and customer experiences 

As competition for consumers’ attention increases under COVID-19-prompted financial strains, retailers need to differentiate themselves by delivering a seamless shopping experience. Unfortunately, doing so isn’t easy — especially if retail employees are tied up with manual and tedious job responsibilities. When executed by hand, fulfilling orders and completing the accompanying paperwork can take hours, consequently exhausting workers and increasing the odds of error. As a result, customers may receive a less-than-satisfactory shopping experience. 

To alleviate the burden on employees, retailers can deploy software robots to address customer requests, from invoice drafting to return processing. With the ability to intake customer information and sort it into designated locations, these robots can process forms with increased speed and accuracy, thereby freeing employees to focus on more personable work. By taking on the more repetitive, menial tasks from employees’ workloads, automation software reduces the risk of burnout—a particularly relevant concern as employees recover from holiday stress. 

Automated robots can also function as customers’ first point of contact when engaging with a retailer. With fewer stores open in light of the pandemic, the responsibility of handling customer concerns and questions falls on call center teams — many of whom are working remotely during this time. As consumers attempt to contact call centers en mass with product questions or return requests following the holidays, retailers run the risk of long wait times if a representative is required to respond to every inquiry. 

Instead, retailers can set up automation tools like chatbots to field requests and even handle the simpler ones themselves. Upon reviewing the request, chatbots can then discern whether to elevate the request to a representative, meaning retail employees can dedicate their time to those scenarios that benefit most from human input while all other inquiries are handled quickly and efficiently by robots. 

Stay agile against industry changes over time 

As the pandemic has shown, business needs can change seemingly overnight, rendering typical business models inadequate if they’re incapable of evolving in stride. While staying ahead of industry changes may sound laborious, retailers can adapt quickly if they have the right technologies in place. When embedded with core AI capabilities, automation platforms can be continually upscaled to serve evolving needs — with minimal effort on the part of operators. 

Through process mining, software robots can analyze employee workflow data to identify operational bottlenecks that require attention, or that could even be automated (such as processes that are highly repetitive and time-consuming and consequently causing delays). 

Similarly, these bots can also monitor retail activity online to identify areas for improvement from a customer perspective. For example, automation software can be configured to assess consumer emails to recognize complaints about product quality and alert the appropriate representative — a much more efficient process than having an employee read every customer inquiry to identify and correct operational weaknesses. 

In a time when shopping is becoming increasingly digital, retailers must transform with cutting-edge technologies in order to remain competitive and win over consumers. As they enter the new year, brands have the opportunity to invest in technologies — like automation — that can not only help them overcome cyclical booms in business, but also ensure they can adapt in response to timely changes and, as a result, be set up for enduring success. 

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