How to automate your retail tech stack

Summary: Automation helps you spend less time on mundane repeatable tasks and more time on what you do best—delivering exceptional customer experiences. In this article we cover:

  • How automation frees employees from being defined by tasks, allowing them to add value to your company
  • Why it's important that your technology systems communicate with each other
  • Knowing what to automate, what not to automate, and why
  • Why it's important to work with experts when architecting your tech stack
  • How to architect your automation intentionally for peak effectiveness

Have you considered automation? 

When first starting out, the majority of business processes are done manually. Scarcely 31% of businesses have fully automated at least one function in 2020, yet studies show making business-process automation a strategic priority is conducive to success. As you’ve likely experienced, spreadsheets, filing cabinets, and ledgers fill brick and mortar stores from floor to ceiling and engulf you in stress, anxiety, and the lingering feeling that there's still more work to be done.

Enter automation. Automated systems can assist you so that less time is spent on mundane repeatable tasks and more time can be spent on what you do bestdelivering an exceptional customer experience. Meanwhile, key insights will compile and nearly fall right into your lap for precise data-driven decision-making. Automation increases your business potential by organizing, optimizing, and growing your company by providing the information necessary to jumpstart improved customer retention and promote new campaigns to excel profits in the long run.

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A spider’s web is almost invisible, but its single architect, the spider, weaves knowing exactly how the web will work.

Afraid of AI and automation? Don’t be!

So, why is the transition to automated systems so daunting or oftentimes completely overlooked? Well hey, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was pretty scary at first, too. But here's the good news: you may be afraid, but you are not alone, and you are not three million light years away from automated tech. We are here to provide the tools and insights needed to automate your business. So, if you're tired of the manual grind and ready to make the switch, let’s put that IT in high gear and get going!

Get your team on board

First and foremost, it's important to get the whole team on board. This is something that's referred to as change management. Change can be intimidating for many people, especially when it involves machines that have the potential to take away your job. Though that's not really the case with the automation we are suggesting. In fact, by mitigating time and energy-consuming chores, employees can provide business value elsewhere, attract more traffic to your business, and be available to support that traffic instead of being buried in paperwork and tasks better suited for robots. Additionally, automation opens more doors for broadening your company and creating high-level positions. So, before shouting out that exciting artificial intelligence is on its way to rule the company and lead it to success, be sure your team is aware of these advantages and is willing to embrace the changes and even challenges that may arise along the way.

One of the best changes automation can bring to your business is freeing people from defining their jobs and themselves by the tasks they do, and instead enabling thinking about the value they add to the company. This shift in thinking is crucial for people who have been head down in the weeds for so long that the weekly Excel Spreadsheet or .csv export has become what they donot the information or value it adds.

Identify your goals

At this point it's time to establish the goals you'd like to achieve through automation. What is it that you'd like technology to help you do, and how will you know that it's successful?

Decide which systems you need to automate

When deciding how to automate your business, the core functions of your business should drive your architecture. Rather than just stringing together your website, your shipping, etc., technology must be architected intentionally to achieve peak effectiveness. We think of business in three categories: customer experience, supply chain, and business intelligence. You'll need automation for each of these, and each of these categories should have technology that talks to each other. The last thing you want is for customer experience and supply chain to be siloed off in their own worlds, creating duplicate data, and missing opportunities for optimization.

Our friends at Kaas Tailored taught us the valuable lesson of analog first. This simply means write down all the systems you're currently using (even if they're manual systems) and the problems they're currently solving. This means all the excel sheets, filing cabinets, hard drives, any way you're currently managing existing systems within your business.

Then, it's time to start looking for ways to automate each of these systems and looking for tools that will actually work together. This is where technology architecture comes into play.

Retailers have a tendency to think that it's easy to come up with this, they think the formula is prescribed already but it's not. So while you may choose tool A for this and tool C for this, the tools may not integrate and may end up creating siloed systems resulting in tech debt. Work with someone who understands retail technology, how to architect it, and creates a plan with all the systems you'd like to use. Then implement each system. When you start with a plan, you'll know how to prioritize which systems and which to implement at what time so you're not installing one that relies on another you'd planned to purchase later.

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Set a budget 

There are a number of what we'd call "good, better, and best" options out there when it comes to automation tools. You should work with a specialist to help you build a set of tools within your price range that interact together to form the solution you need. 

Start architecting 

Now that you know what you’d like to automate and have a budget in mind, it’s time to start assembling the bones. Work with your expert(s) to identify the right tools for your budget. Figure out if cloud-hosted or on-premise makes the most sense for your organization. Plan out where things will talk to each other and what information is important to share.

We know each business is a bit different. You have a different history, different systems in place, different customers, different processes than any other business that’s come before. There is no "Tool A + Tool B = Success" model. It comes down to what you’re trying to accomplish and what you’re working with today.

A scalable architecture with a plan and intention behind it should grow and serve your business for many years to come, through many transitions and changes.

Begin the transition 

With all this in mind, you will have an effective transition into automation and your everyday business should not be negatively affected. To ensure a smooth transition, begin by automating anything that does not directly benefit from human interaction or anything with the threat of human error. An example of this is a handwritten ledger record of the products you retail with pricing and descriptions. A Product Information Management (PIM) system can automate this simple list and eventually more complex information as well.

Measure your results 

As you start this journey it's important to keep historical records and be sure to document as you go. Now you may be asking, "Isn't that exactly what I am trying to move away from? What's the point?" Absolutely. But it will take time for the adjustments to settle in and you want to be sure that if anything goes wrong, crashes, or isn’t the right fit for your company, you have a backup. Record where you started, what you spent, what the results are, etc., for every project. If you don't, you'll take for granted how far you've come and you'll hesitate to pull the trigger on projects that may yield incredible ROIs. In time, records can be transferred to systems to mitigate your paper storage and you will be more confident in your chosen partners or applications.

Build on your base 

Once small ticket items such as stagnant reporting data are converted into an automated flow of information, you will already be multiple steps ahead of the competition. But to stay on top of your game, automating internal functions such as processing emails, bill payments, and stock ordering will make your company more efficient and effective.

Automation isn’t a 'one and done,' approach, and having a planand systems that talk to each othergives you an incredible foundation to build on and automate even more of the daily grind, freeing you up to tackle the stuff that computers aren’t good at.

Know when not to automate 

Ultimately not every process or thing you do will be a target for automation. Infrequent tasks that require advanced pattern matching and have exceptions stacked on exceptions (you know what we’re talking about) might seem ripe for automating because of how time-consuming they can be, but the effort you’ll expend accounting for all possible edge cases far outweighs the benefit you’d get from automation.

We’d recommend not automating when you have to add a bunch of open-ended caveats when training someone. For example, if you were to document a process, it would have several paragraphs of "If you encounter this, call me." or "In this situation, you need to reference these arcane spellbooks to figure out if you should do A or B, but it’s ultimately a judgement call." Those situations will be extremely costly to automate, organizational adoption will be poor since confidence will be low, and you’re unlikely to achieve the level of success required for it to actually drive meaningful results.

Work with us 

At Assemble, we know that finding the right technology allows you to focus on growing instead of worrying about tech. We created The Everyday Retail Blueprint to help retailers create and optimize their tech stack. If you're interested in automating your tech stack, reach out. We'd love to work with you.

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This article was written in collaboration with Kelsey Duffield.