Retail Management and the Trouble With Robots

Over the last several years, I had the unfortunate opportunity to watch a company culture shift from an entrepreneurial, do-what’s-right-for-the-business culture, to a shut-up-and-execute, never-deviate-from-the-directive culture. Ah, micromanagement…bane of my existence. I loved the people I worked with there, and was sad to leave, but that’s not who I am, and it isn’t who I was hired on to be. And while I’d like to say it’s a one-off for one company, I can see that the problem is a growing issue in the industry. I know plenty of peers across a number of companies feeling adrift for the same reasons.

I get how it has happened…retail is struggling, companies are throwing out every lifeline they can to figure out what will right the ship, and the benefits of hiring people who will shut up and execute seem to be twofold from a theoretical perspective.

First, it’s easy to standardize. You know that if you have a fleet of stores, customers will be getting the exact same message every time at every store, because whatever you tell the team to do is exactly what they do. Second, you can make a case for paying shut up and execute employees less…because you’ve made everything black and white, so you don’t need to pay extra for people with the ability and motivation to interpret and appropriately respond to gray areas.

Sadly, real life doesn’t neatly match up to a theoretical perspective. At the outset, this seems obvious, right? But you’ve probably seen for yourself that policy handbooks are getting longer, not shorter. And company directives are largely getting more detailed, not less. And from my perspective, the problem here is twofold as well.

First, no matter how many policies or directives you write, you’re never going to be able to predict and cover the appropriate actions for every possible scenario…there are simply too many variables. There will always be a blindspot you missed. Second, in not acknowledging that there are potential blindspots that will require navigation of “the gray”, you’re creating employees so heavily entrenched in directives that they don’t even understand that there might be cause for interpretation and deviation from the policy in the first place.

From a service perspective alone, most of us can objectively recognize that there may be exceptions to the rules. Even if there really haven’t been exceptions made previously, most people can read social cues enough to understand when someone is about to get upset and cause a scene. And even if they can’t, almost everyone can understand the point at which you need to give a little to cut your losses and move forward.

Employees who are empowered to be autonomous understand that the cost-benefit on holding your ground in any given argument may not worth the backlash later. Even if it doesn’t result in a full scale national media event, it would be an escalation to a service issue that, frankly, isn’t worth the hassle. Empowered employees can weigh the situation and decide accordingly.

Employees who are managed solely from policies and directives, follow them to the letter and to a fault, for fear of losing their jobs over a broken rule. In my opinion, that’s why we have so much national media attention paid to customer issues lately…employees don’t have a basic understanding of how businesses function within the community, or feel any sense of ownership for keeping them in good standing.

From a merchandising, marketing, and sales perspective, which, in my opinion, may be arguably more important in terms of actually selling product and staying open, the people in your stores are the people who know your customer, your business model, and the current state of your stores (in everything from morale to space planning). If you’re hiring entrepreneurial-minded people, they can (and will) tell you when things aren’t working. And they’ll also own the results, if you let them own the decisions…good or bad. And believe me, when you own it…really own it… there’s extra incentive for it to be good.

When companies are churning out a one-size-fits-all approach to inventory planning, marketing, and merchandising, with no latitude for store leadership to adjust to local trends, they’re creating issues with stock-levels and sell-thru rates that could easily be avoided if they only listened when their store leaders said that…for example…this outdoor umbrella doesn’t sell in northern Illinois in early March, because it’s still snowing until late April. Let’s call an audible and allocate that space to something more productive for that month. Let’s build some incremental sales during that time instead of sitting on full-price, placeholder inventory, that we all know isn’t going anywhere for 30-45 days.

Time is money…space is money…why waste both by not listening to the people you pay to run your business? Robots managers in execute-the-directive mode are only as good as the data you input. If you hire a bunch of robots to run your business and give them poorly vetted, generic data, you get stale stores that can’t adjust to a locale and quickly become perceived as irrelevant.

As retail continues to struggle to adapt, it will become increasingly clear that customers who are looking for a personalized experience with a retailer want it embodied in MORE than just customer service standards. They want it embodied in merchandise selection, visual planning, and community involvement/relevance as well.

So keep pushing the entrepreneurs out of your business if you must, but know that they’ll be thinking for someone else’s brand (or perhaps for their own), and they’ll be coming for those dollars that you missed when you were busy drawing up a non-negotiable schematic for merchandise that hasn’t moved in 6 weeks, or editing a weekly checklist for which fixtures need to be dusted on which days, instead adapting to change.

One thought on “Retail Management and the Trouble With Robots

  1. Sally says:

    Oh my Megan. This is an interesting perspective on retail, but you can insert manufacturing, nursing, teaching, almost any profession into your article. What are we ever going to do? (Heavy sigh). On a lighter note, growth on Main Street in Princeton and LaSalle make me smile!!

    Liked by 1 person

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