"User-friendly" and "intuitive" are perhaps the most frequently cited requirements handed down to systems staff charged with introducing new technology to store-level employees.
The sheer volume of store staff, high turnover rates, proportion of part-time workers and lack of computer skills means technology must be one thing in the eyes of the end user: easy. If it's easy, retailers say, it will be used; if it's not, new technology can discourage users and stifle productivity.
Labor management software, point-of-sale systems and computer-based training are among the in-store technology tools that can enhance operations. Successfully managing the cultural change and encouraging user involvement from selection to implementation is essential, retailers told SN.
"Our end users are basically pushing the process," said Scott Floeck, senior manager of information technology systems and development, Shaw's Supermarkets, Bridgewater, Mass.
"Traditional IT came up with technology solutions and pushed it on to the user. We've changed that around. The user now is pushing for changes to support the business," he said. "Retail systems at store level have always been a big part of our culture. Any time we roll out a big retail system, change management is always a part of that."
Change management can make the difference between the acceptance or rejection of technology, especially with automated systems such as labor scheduling software.
"You've got to watch that because it's not just a technology issue. It could be a management issue, too -- the whole 'change control' thing," said Cal Sihilling, vice president, information systems, Alex Lee, Hickory, N.C.
Indeed, Raley's Super Markets, West Sacramento, Calif., learned that difficult lesson when it introduced labor scheduling software a few years ago and did not anticipate store managers' passive resistance.
Although store managers told management they liked the new system, the chain learned that about 25% of store managers were not using the tool properly or not using it at all. Instead of allowing the software to automate the scheduling process, store managers continued to create schedules manually and later keyed the data into the computer system.
Once the problem was detected, Raley's was able to address store managers' concerns and develop a transition and retraining program that resulted in better acceptance.
Labor scheduling continues to be a challenge at Lawrence Bros. Management Services, a 20-store Sweetwater, Texas, chain, whose users have had difficulty working with the software.
"We have tried a couple labor-scheduling programs that were not very successful because they were not very user-friendly," said Jay Lawrence, director of management information systems, electronic data processing.
"We're still trying to refine the process, but we're not happy with what we've found yet," he said.
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Store managers can be particularly resistant to new automated technology because they sometimes perceive it as a threat.
"It's a culture change for any retailer to tell a store manager, 'Hey, you're not going to be writing schedules anymore. This computer is going to do it for you,' " said a supplier of labor management software.
"Retailers tell me it takes a real commitment on their part to help store managers understand that we're not taking power away from you; we're helping you to make your store more profitable," he added.
At Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., technology end users are referred to as "knowledge workers" and the tools put into their hands are selected based upon their job objectives and their computer proficiency.
"You can't achieve a return on investment unless people can use what you're putting in. So if you've got very advanced users you can be more aggressive with the power of the solution you are delivering," said an information systems executive at Food Lion.
"If you've got people in a neophyte stage of technology usage, then you probably shouldn't shoot so high, because you may exceed their capability, and that could cost you," he said.
One way to ensure a system does not exceed a user's abilities is to insist upon built-in intuitiveness, such as the point-of-sale systems being rolled out at Farm Fresh, Norfolk, Va., and at Bruno's, Birmingham, Ala.
Though the chains are working with different technologies, the common thread is that both systems' cashier interfaces are highly intuitive. Command keys, for example, are dynamic in that their functions change according to the particular task being performed.
Both Farm Fresh and Bruno's said such systems enable trainees to come up to speed quickly.
Another PC-based tool that is highly influenced by the user is computer-based training programs.
"We are in the process of getting a pilot for CBT, and in that case the end user really has the final say. That's what it's all based on: how the end user perceives it and how easy it is to use," said Steve Dittmer, retail systems director, Brodbeck Enterprises, Platteville, Wis.
Ensuring that users adopt new technology and use it to improve productivity requires a certain degree of soul searching. Success hinges upon finding the right match of user to tool and to be certain -- in a time when new technology options are flooding the market -- that the system is the right one.
"You don't want to make it more complex than it has to be, but these are multifaceted issues," said Alex Lee's Sihilling. "Your risk is embedded in questions like: 'Will users be able to absorb it? Does it really solve the problem? Is it the problem we should be solving?' "