The Store of the Future is going to need a communication upgrade

Why “Post and Pray” won’t cut it in a post-COVID world

Industry Trends
June 9, 2020
Zipline Staff Contribution

There’s a lot of talk out there about how COVID-19 is changing the future of brick and mortar retail. It seems everywhere you turn, there’s an article about contactless payments, reservation systems, or curbside pickup. Without a doubt, adjusting to the “new normal” after COVID-19 will require retailers to undergo a ton of organizational, technological, and operational changes. 

All of these changes - as well as the reasons behind them - will need to be communicated to stores.

New sanitization standards, sticky floor mats, installation of temperature technology… all of that stuff requires instructions and guidelines be sent to stores, somehow. That 65-page operating manual, those training guidelines, that new print-in-store signage… all of that stuff has to live somewhere. And all of that stuff has to be sent and accessed in such a way so that all of a retailers’ locations - sometimes upwards of thousands - can give customers the same experience. 

It’s a lot to manage, and traditional email, static intranets, and even messaging apps aren’t built to deploy and maintain this level of communication at scale. It isn’t enough to just post critical direction for store teams on an online message board and pray those teams read it - with post-COVID complications, there’s too much at stake. Here are five reasons why your “Store of the Future” is going to need a communication platform upgrade:

1. Organizational alignment is everything.

In their in-depth look at shopping in a post-COVID word, Modern Retail stresses how important it will be for retailers to communicate to customers what they can expect in store. “That begins before shoppers enter the door,” says the article, “starting with providing information on the retailer’s website about what steps they are taking to promote social distancing in stores as well as how often they are cleaning commonly touched surfaces.” Customers’ expectations for a true “omni-channel” experience were already high before the pandemic, but now it’s about more than making sure your online and in-store promotions match up - it’s about safety. What happens when consumer-facing communication and store-facing communication doesn’t match up?

Achieving organizational alignment is no easy task, and it’s often compounded by the fact that the communication channels retailers use to talk to their customers aren’t the same ones they use to talk to their employees. With separation like that, it’s easy for separate departments like Marketing and Store Operations to function in silos, each barely aware of what the other is doing or saying. 

Breaking down these bureaucratic barriers requires a communications platform that everybody, including cross-functional teams at headquarters, can access. When the Store Operations team sends social distancing directions down to field teams, does the Marketing team - who is responsible for posting those same directions for customers on social media - have visibility? Giving HQ departments insight into the full spectrum of messages sent to stores can help expose inaccuracies or conflicting direction quickly and encourage teams to align on messaging from the get-go. If your current store communication solution is locked down or only accessible to a small number of HQ business partners, it’s time to reevaluate.

2. The bar for training just got higher.

For the sake of clarity and simplicity, some retailers have chosen to implement rules across all stores that may not align with local or state regulations. For instance, many are requiring customers to wear masks in order to shop - even if the city or county doesn’t. “That puts the onus on their store employees to act as de facto bouncers,” says Modern Retail, which can lead to conflict between employees and customers. In order to avoid the worst possible outcome - a violent reaction from a customer - retailers now need to train employees on how exactly to de-escalate that type of conflict.  But what happens when you can’t deliver that training in a clear, engaging way? 

Understanding how to de-escalate a customer conflict or learning how to succinctly explain a stores’ rules and regulations to an irate shopper isn’t something you can easily glean from a printed handout or backroom poster. As frontline workers navigate this new normal, they’ll need more detailed examples, like video training, to learn effective ways to defuse conflicts. If your current communication platform is unable to deliver content in a visually engaging way, it’s a good idea to begin looking for an upgrade.

3. Everybody will need something different.

If there’s one thing we’re sure of, it’s that new COVID-19 precautions are going to require a bunch of new signage. There will be new handling instructions or limits for particular products. There will be designated areas to line up and wait. There will be mask guidelines and social distancing rules and processes for curbside pick-up. All of these things will require signage - and lots of it. But getting those signs and direction to stores isn’t as simple as designing a one-size-fits-all template and calling it a day. Due to shifting state, county, and city-wide regulations (not to mention different store set-ups and footprints), every location will undoubtedly need something slightly different. How can you ensure your teams understand direction, especially if that direction differs from store to store? 

If a store’s signs communicate important health-related rules and regulations, it’s imperative that teams post the right thing in the right place. Failure to comply with local guidelines could result in fines, or worse - it could endanger employees and customers alike. That’s why it’s important to take stock of the way you deliver this type of direction to your stores: Are you able to segment materials and information so that only specific locations see it? (If not, how likely is it that a store in Minneapolis accidentally posts signs intended for a store in San Francisco? And what are the implications of that type of mistake?) With so much at stake, it may be time to step up to a communications platform that can target information by location or role.

4. Retailers need to make room for creativity.

One unique upside to the pandemic: Field leaders are now required to flex their creative muscles a bit more. Since the outbreak, stores everywhere are changing their merchandising set-ups to comply with new health and safety guidelines. For instance, gone are the grocery store salad bars of yesteryear, and what’s cropped up in their place shows that store teams still have a sense of humor. Retailers that can capitalize on their teams’ creative approach to common problems may very well come out ahead. So, how do you help activate your teams’ natural talent and creativity in a way that’s also HQ-sanctioned?

It’s no secret that store employees want the ability to chat with their own team or district. This can be a great way to double-check on HQ’s direction, share ideas to solve a problem, or to simply let off steam and celebrate wins. But when HQ doesn’t give store teams that ability, teams will usually find a way - even if it means using non-company sanctioned tools like iMessage, GroupMe, or WhatsApp. Putting company information on public channels can expose your organization to unnecessary risk, so it’s best to create a designated spot for this type of feedback loop in the first place. 

We all know that an intranet or email newsletter won’t ever function like those chat-based apps your employees know and love. To capture ideas from the frontline and encourage creative problem-solving among your teams, consider investing in a communications solution that’s focused on employee engagement. Better yet, ensure that employees can easily access it right from a mobile device, they don’t need to leave the sales floor to provide input. HQ can get a clear picture of what’s happening in stores without having to wait for emails and insights to work their way up the chain.

5. There’s so much more at stake.

Store communication has always been a pain point for retailers, but in a post-COVID world that pain is even more acute. Communications are no longer just about managing the business - they’re about protecting employees’ and customers' health and safety. (This isn’t about coupon codes anymore.) If you aren’t able to get important information out to your fleet, you don’t just risk angry customers - you face substantial risks from lawsuits and employee backlash. When you need something done at the store, you now need the documentation to prove it was done, too. 

If your current communication platform doesn’t have built-in task tracking, or doesn’t capture readership data, now’s a good time to start looking for a solution that does. If nothing else, the old hodge-podge approach of communicating with store teams via email and spreadsheets will no longer fly when life or death is at stake. 

If you’re looking to upgrade your store communications platform to a solution that solves for all these use cases and more, reach out.