How retailers are overcoming labor shortages

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Lindsey Allen

Each day labor shortages in America worsen, challenging retailers in the recovering U.S. economy to employ staff who will manage storefronts, stock shelves and check inventory. With the number of administered vaccines rising and COVID-19 restrictions decreasing, many American shoppers will be returning to stores with fewer associates to meet their needs. With unfilled job positions reaching a high of 9.3 million and the recent influx of shoppers, retailers are working to address labor shortages by shifting their focus to technology solutions that will improve retail execution and associate productivity. These solutions simplify workforce management for the retailer, while also making it easier for associates to do more with less.

Returns management

Returns have always been challenging for retailers to manage. However, with COVID-19 restrictions forcing many shoppers to purchase items online, the rate of returns has ­skyrocketed.

One way retailers are tackling this new operational challenge is by leveraging intelligent workforce management software to help automate labor forecasting and the scheduling process. Having an understanding of the seasonality of retail, such as preparing for an influx of returns during the holidays, can help employers determine the right number of employees to schedule for handling these increased returns. When used in conjunction with prescriptive analytics and even task management software, an intelligent workforce management solution can help retailers accurately align labor with the project return volume. It also reduces the amount of time managers spend in the back office working on schedules, further empowering them to focus on higher-value tasks — such as assisting at the customer service desk when needed to approve return exceptions or train associates new to the role.

These solutions further improve work flows and retail execution by equipping stores with the task guidance they need to properly manage returns and minimize loss. When items are processed incorrectly, a prescriptive analytics system can help flag the error to the manager, letting them know of the improperly tagged or handled item so further investigation or training can be conducted. It can also help retailers manage returns fraud, a challenge they’ve been working to address and overcome in recent years.

In addition to prescriptive analytics and intelligent workforce management software, retailers can utilize radio frequency identification (RFID) to improve the accuracy of returns and provide an overall better and faster customer experience. RFID readers enable stores to quickly and accurately process returns at the counter, without the hassle of manually searching for price tags or confirming they match the receipt.

Inventory and store ­management

In Zebra’s 2021 Global Shopper Study, retail executives and associates agreed that inventory management tools are a necessity in improving accuracy and availability of goods. Yet physical inventory counts, cycle counts and even daily inventory management are always difficult for retailers, especially when struggling with a challenging labor market. To make these necessary tasks more efficient, retailers can supply their associates with hardware and software technologies that enable them to do their jobs better, including barcode scanners, mobile computers and mobile printers that make it easier to quickly scan items, confirm proper on-shelf volume and placement, and adjust pricing on the spot as needed.

While it may seem more beneficial for third parties to conduct inventory counts during times of extreme labor shortages, retailers can lose control over business plans, as they don’t have control over the outsourced company. This is why more retailers are moving toward self-directed inventory programs. By giving in-house associates the tools needed to conduct physical inventory and cycle counts, retailers are able to dictate and schedule their inventory process more efficiently. Retailers who let their in-house teams conduct inventory have more control over the time line, leading to faster results that will meet corporate deadlines and resolve issues that impact customer satisfaction almost immediately.

By empowering their associates to drive the inventory management process, retailers are also demonstrating trust in their employees and acknowledging the valuable skill sets they bring. By providing associates with simple-to-use technology solutions they can learn in just a few minutes, they are able to get to work immediately and see the direct impact they are making right at their fingertips, even if it’s their first day on the job. In other words, giving associates the technology, training and confidence needed to carry out physical inventory and cycle counts can improve employee satisfaction and retention during the height of labor shortages.

Lindsey Allen is senior manager of Retail & Hospitality Vertical Marketing at Zebra Technologies.


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