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RPA helps online retail growth

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By: Alastair Roriston, UK Sales Director 

Retailers are rapidly adopting Robotic Process Automation (RPA) as they look to improve customer experience, supply chains, marketing and business operations to meet changing market conditions. 

While successive lockdowns and social distancing restrictions accelerated online retail growth, the effect on retailer operations is not temporary. It was expected that by 2023 online sales would account for a quarter of the overall retail industry. The global pandemic brought that figure forward, and in May 2021, the UK’s ONS reported that 28.4% of retail sales were online. 

Today’s consumers are becoming more demanding, which is the difficulty retailers have been experiencing post-Brexit and during the pandemic. Not only do consumers expect a faster digital shopping experience without error, but they also want impeccable customer service. Also, more and more consumers are unwilling to buy from unethical companies; they want to know that retailers are lessening their impact on the environment and that their data is safe. So how is RPA helping the retail sector? 

A consumer’s purchase of goods is the concluding step of a comprehensive supply chain. Each link in the chain adds to the cost of goods sold. Therefore, anything that reduces cost or improves the service deliverable optimises the retailers’ profit margins and enhances the consumer experience. 

RPA is being used in retail to support teams in various parts of the operation, from inventory management, human resources, supply chain, order and returns processing, store planning, contract management, and delivery logistics. By automating parts of these processes, improved efficiencies are being created along the supply chain, which means staff have more time to focus on improving customer service and more strategic issues like the environment.   

Retailers are also scaling with intelligent automation in supporting areas and seeing significant improvements across hiring, payroll, training, health and safety and operating in the new post-pandemic world. Finance departments are improving compliance, business performance reporting, cash flow management and receivables. There is no doubt that retailers such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Sephora, Aldi, Pets at Home and many more are taking advantage by automating repetitive tasks. 

At Tesco, CEO of Business Services, Dr Sumit Mitra has commented that they have automated 260 plus processes through RPA in the last couple of years. This has resulted in 425,000 person-hour efficiencies, which equate to an almost 25% improvement in efficiency across the business and a £200m+ improvement in their bottom line. They are using RPA and AI capabilities to drive commercial management, and this is throughout the business, where they have trained staff to become citizen developers – people who are spotting opportunities to use RPA to drive improvements in the business.    

So, let’s look in more detail at how RPA can help in specific areas. 

Supply chain management 

Logistics and Supply Chain Management are at the heart of retail activities. Several processes are involved, such as inventory level monitoring, customer support, shipment, order status tracking, and reverse shipment. By deploying RPA to automate logistics and supply chain processes, the positive business outcomes are improved collaboration between suppliers, customers, and distributors. It also has the benefit of reducing waste which from an environmental standpoint is now critical. 

Inventory management  

Traditional inventory management systems could not offer real-time information on stock levels, but RPA can. By automating inventory processes, retailers can immediately see when stock levels are low, preventing ‘stock-out’ situations and allowing them to have better relationships with suppliers and customers. Using intelligent automation and data analytics also allows retailers to automatically see where demand is and support changes to it as and when it arises. It also enables them to predict future demand, all of which will allow better inventory management.   

Order and returns processing 

Validation and transfer of documents is an extravagant use of company resources. The necessary information can be relayed to relevant personnel or departments at lightning-fast speeds using RPA. Software robots validate documents of different types and formats faster and more accurately, freeing staff to focus on exception handling. A combination of humans and technology improves speed, mitigates downstream data risk, and safeguards intellectual property better than ever before. 

Invoice Processing  

Processing invoices is often a time-consuming, repetitive task. Automating these tasks with RPA, such as collecting information, segregating data and processing invoices becomes much faster and free of human error. 

Business and sales analytics 

Data is vital for multiple retail decisions, such as trade promotions, churn rate, and product introductions. RPA can provide real-time reports based on customer preferences and user behaviour regarding a product or product features which can then be used to plan and then assess how effective marketing campaigns are in real-time. This ability to gain insights into data in real-time means the retailer can respond to customer demand more quickly, resulting in improved sales. 

Store planning 

A tremendous amount of effort and data analysis about customer preferences and habits goes into store planning. Using RPA, retail stores can lay out their stores to encourage sales, meet customer expectations, and improve their shopping experience. All of which has a positive impact on sales.    

Contract management 

Many processes in the contract management process can be automated using RPA, such as creating a new contract request, capturing data relevant to the contact, document authoring, and creating the contract and negotiation. RPA can be used to follow the contract through its lifecycle as it is reviewed and approved. Relevant documentation is generated automatically, and digital signatures are requested to make the process more efficient. RPA also improves visibility on the status of contracts and helps track and report their progress, improving compliance. 

Customer support and call centres 

Chatbots and conversational AI are transforming the customer service function. With the help of the latest conversational AI, Chatbots are now able to handle complex conversations with customers, respond to their questions about tracking orders and payments, and provide updates on product launches, discounts, price change, and so forth. All of this can be done 24/7 without human interaction, which is improving customer service and responding to the ‘always on’ culture that consumers now expect. 

There are so many processes that can be automated in retail. Of the 260 automated at Tesco, there are no doubt more that can be automated and improved on as they work through their business, and as RPA and AI become more sophisticated. 

When processes are automated, staff can focus on adding value in more complex and strategic roles. Positive business outcomes for retailers include: 

  • First-time right time delivery 
  • Improved customer experience 
  • Enhanced inventory management 
  • Improved application integration 
  • Mitigation of risk and compliance issues 
  • Reduced operational costs 

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the need for retail to adopt automation because customer demands outweigh the ability for current infrastructures and staffing levels to support them. According to PwC, 7 out of 10 CEOs plan to drive growth via cost reductions. It’s now time that all retailers, large or small, rapidly adopt automation to maximise customer satisfaction and compete against the competition. 

Retailers using intelligent automation and RPA are seeing significant improvements across their operations. The only issue stopping more retailers from benefiting from the enormous gains to be made from RPA and intelligent automation are ones of staffing. There is a massive skills shortage in the automation arena but working with a consultancy and using their expertise to push digitalisation forward is a good way of reaping the benefits of RPA. 

About Author: 

Alastair is responsible for the strategic leadership of the sales and business development departments. He will contribute to the overall growth strategy, helping the business achieve further success within the global intelligent automation market. Alastair has extensive experience in the intelligent automation industry, having previously held sales leadership roles at UiPath and Rainbird Technologies. 

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