Retail has been one of the most dynamic and evolving industries, especially in emerging markets such as China and India. According to a report by eMarketer, the retail industry is expected to reach a mark of $27.7 trillion in global sales by 2020 and along with the growing opportunities; the competition among different players is rapidly rising. With the introduction of disruptive technologies such as AI, IoT, Robotics, Blockchain and the most recent RPA (Robotic Process Automation), retailers are looking beyond the human capabilities to manage these processes more accurately and productively.
Human Resources has always been one of the key challenges in the retail industry due to seasonal demand, lack of formal education and long hours work environment. On top, technology is driving several new changes. Customers can browse, compare and buy on their phones. Many of the new retail jobs require better skills and pay more. There is less demand for people who operate sales registers and greater demand for people who can enhance the customer experience by analyzing data to anticipate product demand and move goods efficiently.
RPA involves the use of technology to interpret existing application software to automatically process a transaction or complete a process. RPA can considerably reduce the requirement for people to perform high-volume IT support remote infrastructure and manual back-office processes. When aided with machine learning, RPA can mirror human capabilities of perception and reasoning and handle tasks which are regular, and repetitive like queries, transactions, calculations and records maintenance.
The value proposition of RPA in retail
RPA adds value to a retail organisation through process optimization and cost-effectiveness with which the robots can perform routine tasks day in and day out without taking holidays or reporting sick or late for work. As retailers focusing on improving efficiency, cost reduction, compliance and deploying employees on high-value tasks RPA could bring below value to a retail organization:
Productivity and efficiency: Robotic automation tools are faster than human FTEs (Full-time equivalent) and can function 24/7
Accuracy: Automation phases out human intervention, thus reducing the possibility of human errors
Scalability and flexibility: The ability to replicate robotic tools across geographies/business units increases scalability and flexibility
Compliance: Robotics allows data and processes to be retained onsite
Possible Applications of RPA in retail
Along with easing up the most basic tasks of the industry such as product scanning, data analytics, and inventory management, Robotic Process Automation caters for most of the administrative processes as well, resulting in advanced audit, better customer relationship management, cost reduction, better productivity, and much more!
- Returns Processing
The increasing use of customer-focused retail practices especially in e-commerce adds up the tasks like product returns to the various retail processes. Processing returns manually can be a time-consuming task. Product returns are a cost to the company and if their processing is done manually, it may further increase the costs. RPA effectively manages the returns and does all the required changes needed in altering the inventory database and customers’ billing.
- Workflow Management
Retail is essentially a people-driven industry and customer interaction is one thing that needs to be done manually. With the use of RPA, managing the workflow and other HR processes can be facilitated more productively. Whether it is assigning shifts, measuring time and attendance, auditing sales, payroll and leave management, or assessing employee performance, everything becomes easier with RPA.
- Customer support management
With the increasing focus on customer delight, customer support has become an integral part of the retail industry. Especially in e-commerce, providing 24×7 customer support and sending real-time updates to customers has become important. With Robotic Process Automation, companies can make their customer support more quick and convenient. From the moment an order is placed, the system keeps a track of it and sends real-time updates to the customer. This process doesn’t end even at the time of delivery; an efficient customer support system collects even the after-sale feedback from the customers. RPA thus facilitates the saving of a lot of time, money and efforts.
- ERP Management
RPA based Enterprise Resource Planning is probably the next big thing after automated inventory management. From keeping a track of price changes, billing, employee vacancies to generating reports like accounts payable and receivables, an ERP managed with RPA automates everything and minimizes human efforts. With the integration of inventory at the warehouse and sales at the POS, an automated ERP makes sure that retailers are never out of resources. RPA facilitates the automation and closure of manual tasks associated with ERP systems without the user-intervention required for periodic follow-ups with stakeholders. It accurately identifies the approvers and routes the approvals to their work-lists for timely approvals. RPA interacts only at the graphic user interface level without making changes to the underlying systems. RPA implementation thus saves much of the expenditure incurred by an enterprise on costly technology upgrades of their monolithic and expansive enterprise systems and technology transformations
- Accounting and Finance
Over the years, the accounting and finance functions have largely been managed by qualified professionals but over time technological advancements have called for swifter actions, error reductions and smoother workflow. RPA does just that. In an age characterized by digital transformation, order and invoice processing, accounts payable and accounts receivable management, account reconciliation, procure to pay, order to cash, record to report cycles, consolidating account information amongst numerous other tasks can be managed using RPA.
For example, the financial closing involves a myriad of tasks ranging from closing out ledgers to creating financial filings and then sending them to various regulatory bodies. This involves working with distinct individuals, systems across various departments. The process is cumbersome and can be easily mitigated by RPA.
Transactions across various departments and divisions need to be recorded, maintained, updated and consolidated. RPA can gather and consolidate the transactions and reconcile them in ERP. RPA can speed up all these processes, save time and reduce costs.
- Marketing and Consumer Behaviour Analysis
Reliability and speed are crucial for retail when it comes to consumer behaviour analysis. Speed in analysis and decision making would bring a competitive advantage over other retailers in the industry and perceived reliability by customers would spread positive word of mouth. Adopting RPA would deliver both.
Campaign analysis is an area where RPA is applicable. It is an essential tool which helps marketers assess their current actions and decide on the future course of action. It brings clarity in determining campaign goals, ascertaining campaign budget and identifies specific channels that require improvement. The biggest benefit RPA provides here is that past actions can be repetitively performed in the future without manual effort. If the retailer tweaks strategies based on analysis, then RPA will help in measuring the effectiveness of new strategies.
Product categorization is one of the most important and complex functions in the retail industry. Customers fail to find numerous products online because of poor product categorization. With over a million products sold, the retailers have now integrating RPA to assign attributes and categorizing products for seamless customer experience. Besides these, RPA when used in consumer behavior analysis that would drive effective trade promotions, store specific planning, new product introductions, customer onboarding from websites, manage subscription renewals, claims processing and complaint handling, loyalty card management.
The use of Robotic Process Automation eliminates the need of performing a repetitive manual task that employees generally have to perform. According to Capgemini, more than $2 trillion can be saved in global workforce by automating almost half of the tasks done by humans and when it comes to an evolving industry like retail, using Robotic Process Automation becomes even more important.