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What is Big Box Retail's Astonishing Weapon? Robotic Process Automation

Alex Zekoff

With industry 4.0 just around the corner, robotic process automation (RPA) is gaining momentum across all sectors, and retail is no exception. It should come as no surprise that retail is a thriving industry. For example, global retail sales are expected to reach an eye-watering $31.7 trillion by 2025, up from $23.74 trillion in 2020. 

However, while sales may be trending upward, that doesn't mean the sector is without challenges. The retail industry is fiercely competitive. Online shopping gives consumers more choices than ever before, and customer expectations have never been higher. The retail giants have played a large role in shaping consumer expectations, consistently delivering hyper-convenience and speed and focusing on consumer experiences. They've also been one of the biggest adopters of RPA. For example, Walmart has some 500 bots deployed on key business processes.

So, how do everyday businesses get ahead in this cutthroat environment? Retailers must keep up with the latest trends to have any chance of pulling ahead of their competitors. This means investing in robotic process automation, no matter the retail subsector. Whether it's grocery stores, clothing stores, home furnishing retailers, convenience stores, ecommerce, auto retailers, or something else, RPA can help. Let's dive into how. 

How Does RPA Help in the Retail Sector?

Retailers face many challenges in the quest to keep operations running as smoothly and efficiently as possible. These challenges include:

  • Managing the retail workforce: Employee onboarding, managing, training, and retraining. 
  • Managing the inventory: Inventory management needs to be fine-tuned to ensure the seamless availability of products. 
  • Customer support: Offering fast and efficient support for a variety of queries. 
  • Order fulfillment: Processing and fulfilling orders quickly to drive customer satisfaction levels. 

It's important to understand that these challenges are relatively broad. Each challenge above involves its own set of critical tasks and sometimes many 10s or even 100s of backend processes. When done manually, these processes are time-consuming, labor-intensive, and error-sensitive. Many of these processes are also prime candidates for automation. 

RPA can automate a variety of retail tasks, including returns processing, invoice and contract management, staff selection and onboarding, supply chain management, and store planning management. And the list goes on. 

Automating these tasks produces tangible, measurable benefits. For example, RPA not only improves efficiency and accuracy in retail but also spares workers from needing to spend their time on tedious and repetitive tasks. Free from dull, manual work, employees can spend more time on projects that advance the business. 

And the companies that have embraced automation are reaping the benefits today. For example, Walmart commented, "Our associates immediately understood the opportunity for the new technology to free them up from focusing on tasks that are repeatable, predictable and manual...It allows them time to focus more on selling merchandise and serving customers." On that note, let’s see how RPA is being used in retail today. 

Top Use Cases of RPA in Retail 

Where is RPA having the most significant impact? Let's dive in. 

1. Returns Processing

Returns are just part of doing business in retail. Let's face it, sometimes customers aren't happy with their purchase for one reason or another - unmet expectations, damaged or defective products, or the customer bought the wrong item or changed their mind once they received it. 

Having a returns policy may keep customers happy, but it means lots of additional work for employees. For example, here are just some of the steps involved in processing returns:

  • Verifying the product returns request (checking the item meets the required conditions for return).
  • Creating a return request (finding the order in the sales system, scanning the customer receipt, or copying the data from an email). 
  • Updating the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. 
  • Processing the payment and completing the return. 

RPA allows retailers to process orders and returns much faster by largely eliminating delays and bottlenecks. 

Here's an example of how it works in practice. Using the purchase order or delivery note, the RPA bot can process the returns, update the ERP system with any changes to the order, and generate a credit or debit note. It can then send the relevant document to the customer or vendor for validation before finalizing the return. It does this all without any human intervention simply by following predefined scripts on how to handle returns. 

2. Inventory Management

Inventory management is everything related to the ordering, storing, using, and selling of a company's inventory. It's an essential activity for any retail company because it helps them determine which and how much stock to order and at what time. This ensures there's always enough stock to meet customer demand without needlessly storing too much stock. 

Robotic process automation can handle many inventory-related tasks, including managing purchase order forms, tracking leftover stock, replenishing inventory, shipping out orders, and even vendor validation (analyzing quotations and responding to requests). Smart bots can also extract enhanced insights from inventory and supply chain data. 

One of the most significant benefits of robotic process automation in this area is reducing errors. Unfortunately, mistakes are incredibly common when managing warehouses, especially when keeping track of receiving, packing, and shipping orders. Robotic process automation combats this issue by using optical character recognition (OCR) to extract text with perfect accuracy. It also ensures that each process is completed in the same way every single time. 

3. CRM Automations

Customers expect 24/7 service and real-time responses to their queries in today's customer-centric world. Keeping up with this demand is challenging for businesses of all sizes, but it's particularly taxing for smaller companies with few workers. 

So, what's the solution here? How about hiring more full-time employees to work outside your typical office hours? That would be prohibitively expensive and largely a waste of time - those workers would probably be staring at a blank screen most of the time. RPA is an excellent compromise here. 

You can integrate robotic process automation technology with your CRM system to provide faster resolutions to queries and complaints, improving the customer experience. Moreover, you can even leverage RPA to collect product feedback through email automation and feed the responses back into your CRM platform. 

4. Enhancing Supply Chain Management

The supply chain is at the core of any thriving retail business. However, supply chains are often complex and delicate engines that need careful management. Small mistakes can have a domino effect across the supply chain, slowing everything down and causing delays. 

RPA can help by improving the overall flow of the supply chain and boosting efficiencies. For example, RPA can handle everything from the mounting pile of backlogged office duties to tracking the shipments and following up with customers after order completion. It can handle those time-consuming, repetitive tasks like data entry, email communication (confirmation of orders or acknowledgment of a customer complaint), and data collection and transmission for IoT devices. 

5. Invoice Processing

Robotic process automation technology can create invoices and work orders, process payments, reconcile accounts, build transparent audit trails and produce reports, and update accounts in real-time. In addition, RPA can also reconcile financial information and flag discrepancies for investigation. 

RPA is particularly impactful in invoicing because handling invoices is one of the most paper and labor-intensive tasks in retail, eating up a significant amount of working hours each month. This is time workers could be spending on other, more creative tasks. 

Smart bots dramatically speed up invoice processing by scanning, digitizing, and validating crucial data from purchase orders or work orders to generate new invoices. By deploying RPA in this area, retail companies can avoid financial penalties and reputational harm from late and incomplete payments. In addition, and critically, RPA improves invoice processing cycle time, allowing bills to be processed faster and revenue to be maximized. 

Other Common Use Cases

So, we've looked at the top use cases of RPA in retail, but what about the rest? RPA can also help in crucial business areas like supply and demand planning, product categorization, accurate sales reporting, ERP management, marketing, and more. Wherever repetitive, rules-based processes exist, there's space for RPA. 

Let's look at one of these in more detail - marketing. Marketing teams spend a colossal amount of time communicating with customers via email. Maybe they want to announce a new product, run a dedicated sales campaign, upsell existing products, or something else. Crafting these emails takes considerable time and requires keen attention to detail. The company wouldn't look too good if a promotional email contained the wrong link, was missing crucial details, or contained inconsistent messaging. 

Robotic process automation can save vast amounts of time and effort here. For example, the smart bot can extract key data about marketing campaigns, like, say, the promotional code and product features, and generate a new email campaign using a pre-designed template. 

Final Thoughts

RPA is transforming the retail sector, and this trend is only expected to continue as we move further into the 2020s and beyond. In the digital age, it simply doesn't make sense to spend countless unnecessary hours on manual tasks that robots can do much faster and with higher accuracy.

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