caution. That’s largely because retail work
tends to be more chaotic than operations
in the well-ordered warehouse.
“There are many best practices developed
in the DC that can be applied to the store,
but not all of them can,” said Gary Oldham,
vice president of sales at the Vitech Business
Group, a voice-directed picking technology vendor. For example, while warehouse
shelves are typically labeled with information like zone, section, and bin numbers to help workers locate items quickly,
retail shelves lack that type of identifying
information. That difference can affect a
worker’s ability to rapidly locate a product
he or she needs to pick, Oldham said.
As users roll out the first retail voice
pilots, many companies are discovering
that they may have to use the technology differently on the retail floor than
they do inside a warehouse, agreed Sean
Wallingford, senior director of strategic operations at systems integrator
Intelligrated Systems Inc.
The nature of the work in a retail environment means employees are often assigned
to a wide variety of tasks—in a single
day, they could clean floors, stock shelves,
and receive products off a truck—while
a warehouse worker usually concentrates
on a single specialized job from sunup to
sundown, he said.
“In the DC, everything is tracked and
measured, then compared to an engineered
standard for the number of people needed
for the job,” Wallingford said. “But stores
have no idea how long it will take. They’ll
pull people off cash registers because a
shipment of hot orders came in, and then
customers see 20 registers with only one
lane open because there are three people
out back picking,” he said.
FINDING A NICHE FOR VOICE
With all those distractions, voice technology probably won’t be a good fit for every
corner of the retail store, but retailers are
testing a raft of approaches to find the ones
that work best.
One such approach is to deploy voice
technology only in certain physical seg-
ments of the brick-and-mortar store, like
distractions of having to field queries about
fulfillment tasks, voice can help
in three ways, Powell said. To
begin with, the technology enables
employees to optimize their effi-
ciency. Second, it helps standard-
ize the level of service provided.
And finally, it helps assure tasks are
executed well regardless of which
worker is on that shift.
Voice-directed work tools translate well from the warehouse to
the retail floor when employees are
performing repetitive yet detail-ori-ented jobs like order selection,
inventory counts, stocking shelves,
or updating prices. However, when
you bring customer service into the
mix, it can have some drawbacks.
For instance, some retailers have
expressed concerns that a worker’s bulky headset will discourage
shoppers from asking questions or
seeking help, which could ultimately result in a lost sale.
One workaround is to choose
sleek, lightweight headsets instead
of ruggedized warehouse versions,
Powell said. Another option is to
pick a model with a microphone
boom that, when lowered, pauses
the voice direction so the associate
can engage with a customer.
FINDING ORDER IN RETAIL
Despite that potential, users should
not expect to simply migrate
voice-picking hardware from
their DC to the store and instantly achieve DC-level results, experts