Features, Insight, Interviews

“Retail outlets can become a theatre of dreams” – Zebra Technologies

CNME Editor Mark Forker spoke to Hozefa Saylawala – Middle East Director at Zebra Technologies, to find out how his company is leveraging its portfolio of technologies to empower enterprises in the ‘on-demand’ economy – and to learn how retailers are embracing a new concept called ‘theatre of retail’ in a bid to replicate seamless online shopping experiences in physical retail outlets.  

When the global economy ground to a shuddering halt in March 2020, the way in which we live, learn, work and play was completely reshaped indefinitely.

Industries were forced to adapt and change in a bid to maintain business continuity and in many cases ‘keep the lights on’.

The combination of all these forces paved the way for what some describe as the ‘on-demand economy’ that we now live in, a society which is fueled by ‘experiences’ – and that are ultimately underpinned by digital transactions.

We know that the pandemic served as an accelerator for many things, such as the ‘work from anywhere’ world that has now been adopted globally, hybrid and remote working are here to stay.

However, when it comes to the retail industry, we know there was a sizeable shift towards e-commerce pre-pandemic but this skyrocketed during the global health crisis – so much so that it changed customer behaviours.

CNME managed to secure an exclusive interview with Hozefa Saylawala, in a bid to learn more about how Zebra Technologies is helping retailers to strike a better balance when it comes to the ‘experiences’ enjoyed by consumers online versus instore.

The dynamic and charismatic Saylawala, who is regarded as a thought leader by industry peers, kickstarted a brilliant and organic conversation by highlighting just what Zebra Technologies is bringing to the party for retailers.

“We empower organisations to thrive in the on-demand economy, by making every frontline worker and asset at the edge visible, connected and fully optimised. This allows us to create and digitise automated workflows. We create digital IDs for every frontline worker, assets, or inventory that you have, and once they have that digital ID through the help of our technology you can track, trace, and monitor the movement of these workers, asset, and inventory inside your retail shop, office or warehouse”, said Saylawala.

Saylawala stressed that for retailers starting from scratch, it’s much easier for them in terms of identifying trends, or challenges that their business is going to face because they are essentially working off a clean slate.

However, he added that for an existing retailer that already has some sort of legacy technology deployed, then it is going to be a transformation journey to move from point A to point B, especially considering the fact that we are now living in the on-demand economy. The Zebra Technologies executive spoke about how customer behaviours had changed – and defined what he believes are the fundamental characteristics of the on-demand economy.

“Many consumers now love the sheer convenience of shopping online, but they were very much in the minority prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has really accelerated the growth of online shopping. There were a lot of shoppers pre-pandemic that were resisting this transformation, but during the global pandemic they had no choice but to get on this bandwagon. If I were asked to plainly define the on-demand economy, it essentially means the economic activity created by digital marketplaces and technology companies to fulfill consumer demand via immediate access to goods and services. The exponential growth in online traffic, and the different delivery options that have been created, has undoubtedly added a layer of complexity for retailers – and means that retailers need to be equipped with the solutions and data insights on hand to be able to cater to expectations in the on-demand economy”, said Saylawala.

Staying on the topic of customer behaviour, Saylawala spoke about how technology had heightened our expectations as consumers resulting in a very low tolerance for bad experiences with applications. CNME commented on the industry consensus that when consumers have an unsatisfactory experience with a mobile application it is highly unlikely that they will engage with that application again, and instead will look for an alternative. Saylawala declared that the biggest challenges facing physical stores was the fact that frontline staff can’t replicate the experience consumers enjoy online.

“Shoppers now expect all the choice, convenience of access, and the speed of online shopping – this has now become a new behavior. We have become so used to being able to compare products and pricing via the click of a button, so this has rather inevitably changed the customer psyche. This has fostered an environment in which we have all become inpatient shoppers because we have become accustomed to accessing information instantly. The problem now is when you take this behaviour pattern back to shopping in physical stores, the traditional store associate is no longer equipped to deal with the changing behaviour of the consumer who is expecting information and competitive analysis at the snap of a finger, and this is undoubtedly the biggest challenge that physical retail stores are facing”, said Saylawala.

What is the solution to this challenge? According to Saylawala, the answer lies in the omnichannel.

“The question now becomes – how do I enable my frontline worker to provide the same experience that is delivered online? How do I ensure that they have the access to the information, or access to the tools that allows them to deliver the same online experience inside the store? This is what we call the omnichannel experience, which allows you to seamlessly translate that online experience and replicate it instore”, said Saylawala.

Expanding on the challenges facing those physical retailers that are trying to entice shoppers back instore, Saylawala revealed that many retailers had completely transformed their operations and had adopted technologies to personalise experiences and cater to the demands of Generation Z, adding that many retail outlets had now become experience centers, he called this movement the ‘theatre of retail’.

“The theatre of retail concept is something that has been validated more since some retailers in London are now recruiting associates from stage schools in a bid to put the drama back into retail. The idea is that store associates are no longer simply just uniforms at the point of sale, now they must be able to translate the omnichannel journey for an online shopper, who is now walking into a physical store and has expectations, which are very different from what consumers were expecting before the exponential growth of online shopping. Shops have now become what we call experience centers. Some retailers now have digital mirrors that give you personalisation options on your shoes and clothes, and this is catering to the expectations of Generation Z, who are extremely social media savvy, and want to share their shopping experience online. We are seeing a lot of these transformations inside stores across the UAE, and many stores now have their own cafeterias, and are utilising celebrities and social media influencers to create a story around the retail brand. If you combine all these factors that is why we term this new experience as the ‘theatre of retail’,” said Saylawala.

Zebra Technologies commissioned their 14th Annual Global Study earlier this year, which explored in forensic detail some of the challenges that are facing retailers in the experience, or on-demand economy.

However, one of the most interesting trends to emerge was the generational shift from ‘Generation Z’ that was not only driving the new patterns in customer behaviour – but was also fueling demand from the frontline workers that retailers were hiring from the same generational demographic.

“Let’s make no mistake about it, there has been a generational shift, and let’s be frank, ‘Generation Z’ has very high expectations. However, rather interestingly, workers that are hired instore are also coming from Generation Z, and they also have high expectations. They are going back to their line managers and are saying we need modern scheduling – we need better communication tools, and we need to be empowered and equipped with the right solutions to be able to better communicate with their customers. So, on one side of the coin, we have the new shopping behaviours and patterns emerging from the consumers, so when they walk into the store, they are putting their demands to the retail associates, and in turn that is translating into investment decisions that retailers are making to meet these demands. However, retailers are hiring frontline workers from Generation Z, and these employees are used to the new tools, and the new way of working, so they in turn are putting pressure back on the retailers. These are forming the foundations of the rapid changes that retailers are now forced to drive, and if retailers thought they could embark upon this transformation in a gradual way, they are quickly finding out that they need to move fast, and they need to move now”, concluded Saylawala.

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