Frontline employees are the most valuable brand ambassadors in retail. They are the people that consumers interact with the most. So when they’re empowered and happy about where they are and what they’re doing, that transitions over to their customers.

Retail customer picking up order in-store and checking out with customer service.

But despite being so vital to a brand’s success, frontline employees are often the last to be reached by the technology that retailers invests in. Typically, we see C-Suite and head office getting all the latest tech, while it takes time to trickle down to the shop floor. This has two major impacts.

Firstly, the majority of frontline workers feel underappreciated by their employers. According to a recent Retail Trust survey, The Health of Retail report 2021, many feel insecure, undervalued and uncertain in relation to their careers. In fact, 84 percent say their mental health has deteriorated since early 2020. And while this is undoubtedly connected to the impact of the last few years on the high street, there is work to be done to bridge the gap between the different levels of retail organisations, from C-Suite to the shop floor.

The other major impact is on the customer experience. Without the right tools in place, the in-store experience can feel impersonal and disconnected. Especially when comparing it to the increasingly personalised online shopping space. Here, consumers have become accustomed to being served highly personalised recommendations.

For me, empowering employees means giving them the right tools to do their best work. And in retail, that means the people on the shop floor having the right technology at their fingertips to allow them to access every type of information that customers need and expect.

Here I want to talk about some of the ways that retailers can start to empower their employees with technology. And as a result, create better customer experiences and a happier, more productive workforce.

Meeting customer expectations in-store

Like every industry, retail is still navigating the new ways of the world. Within that context, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what the future of the industry looks like and where we all fit in that jigsaw puzzle.

But one thing that has been shown clearly is that consumers are itching to get back into shops. The question is: what do those shops now look like?

Up until now, in-person retail has retained quite a consistent format. You go into the shop, you pick the product you want, you go to the checkout, and you leave. And that’s been okay until the last few years, when suddenly consumers started wanting more personal experiences.

That’s the impact of online shopping. Consumers go to the website of their retailer of choice. They get recommendations based on the data the company collects over time. Or they’ll get it personally by email. The challenge is to match this kind of personalisation in-store. And there are great benefits for retailers who manage achieve it.

Research suggests that customers will purchase more from a retailer if they shop both on their digital and in-store spaces. It underscores the importance of omni-channel retail. It also outlines a clear agenda for retailers moving forward: Striving to achieve intelligent retail. One where you connect to customers, your employees, and then your data as well, so that you can have that personalised experience in the store.

Microsoft Experience Center, London UK

We’re already seeing many established retailers making their high street stores more like experience centres. So if you wanted to buy a Surface, for example, there’s the Microsoft Experience Centre in London. Here, you can come in and see the different devices, learn how you can interact with them, and try out accessories in-person. You may not buy the device there; you’re actually more likely to go home and order it online. But we’re definitely starting to see a blend of those online and physical channels.

It’s going to take time for everyone to catch up, especially if you’re a retailer with hundreds of stores nationwide. But devices are a great place to start with the transformation to a more blended, omni-channel shopping experience.

The importance of devices to omni-channel retail

Retail customer picking up order in-store, paying with a credit card and checking out with customer service who‘s using a tablet for point-of-sale (POS).

As a society, we’ve become more used to having things instantly available at the tips of our fingers. Whether that’s a smartphone, a tablet, or a laptop, devices are what have driven the expectation. This is now being translated into retail.

With this rising expectation, retailers who don’t empower their employees to respond quicky and accurately to customers in-store are going to suffer.

Frontline retail employees need to be able to do on-the-spot inventory checks, so they don’t have to go and rummage around in the store room or warehouse, looking physically on the shelves to try and find something that could have been checked in seconds on a handheld device on the shop floor. Without those devices, they often find themselves less well-informed than the customers coming into their stores.

Devices have benefits for retail employees beyond their interactions with customers too. Retail spaces are often large. Having a designated device for communication between team members who could be scattered across the building space, or even on different sites, will make the operation more integrated and seamless from an operational point of view too. They will enhance the connection between the different levels of an organisation, helping to bridge the gap between the C-Suite and shopfloor.

This will empower employees to feel more integral to the business. At the same time, leadership teams can make better decisions based on a more accurate understanding of stores, because they’re able to get feedback from them directly.

And then of course there are the sustainability benefits of devices. M&S is a great example of a UK retailer that has embraced devices, allowing it to achieve its goal of going paperless. This is just one of many benefits the company is now reaping from its push to integrate new technologies across its operations.

Devices designed for the hybrid retail space

The ultimate role of devices in the retail space is to help create a great experience for customers. Whether that’s ordering something in for a customer online, checking inventory levels, or even checking what shifts people on a team are working so managers can make sure that the shop floor is filled with the right people at the right time. All of it comes back to enhancing the in-store experience.

Customer service receiving and fulfilling online orders; checking inventory in the storeroom.

But there’s an increasing understanding that within every retail space, there are different types of workers, and they have different needs. Frontline workers don’t want to walk around the shop floor with a laptop, because it’s heavy and there’s a security risk in putting it down in a busy retail space. Similarly, an information worker in the back office isn’t going to want to use a foldable in-your-palm device.  

At Microsoft, we’ve packaged this understanding into a cohesive offering for retailers. We’ve got lightweight, on-the-go devices like the Surface Go that are designed specifically for frontline workers who don’t want to be tethered to a PC. We’ve got other Surface devices designed for information processing, as well as Surface Hubs that can help improve in-office and hybrid collaboration – meaning everyone feels included.

And because our devices are specifically made to complement the Microsoft software stack, it means that retailers get the best experience from things like Microsoft Teams and Power BI when using them on their Surface. It helps to keep our employees connected with each other, and empowers them serve customers quickly and efficiently.

I am confident that this empowerment will translate into the evolution of the role of frontline workers, who can be there to genuinely support people with disabilities or accessibility needs, becoming much more of a helping hand to customers in-store. There always will be a need for that kind of support, as we adapt to the new world we find ourselves in.

Find out more

Learn how to harness digital for the future of retail

Personalise your organisation’s customer experience strategy

Microsoft Cloud for Retail

Device Decisions – The future is hybrid – considerations for IT leaders in the changing workplace

Technology can help unlock a new future for frontline workers

About the author

Joseph Scott headshot

Joseph runs the Product and Marketing Strategy of our Surface Devices and Accessories for our Small Medium & Corporate (SMC) customers in Microsoft UK.