We’ve had a profound experience of how vital the food supply chain and its frontline workers are to our security with COVID-19.

As brands rebuild from the pandemic, most will reexamine the future of work, and the impact the dependencies between people, product, institutions, technology, and each other have on their business.  

The ‘new normal’ requires innovation inefficiencies balanced with initiatives that strengthen customer experience and loyalty. Today, people are buying whatever they can find on grocery shelves, trying new brands, and forming new preferences. They’re redefining what they consider essential, trying to find jobs and childcare, exploring happy hours over Zoom, and getting better at shopping online. How consumer behavior will change post-COVID is unknown, but that it will is assured.

As companies recover, we’ll see deeper investment in automation. Eager to reset stores and get a grasp on market conditions, category leaders will redirect a portion of those savings into technologies that enhance performance on the frontline as they work to rebuild brand loyalty, return jobs to the economy, and reward vital employees who survived with them through the crisis.

It’s unclear when business as usual will resume, but systems that improve cashflow, trade programs, online ordering and delivery, distribution, morale, and safety for employees and customers can absorb some of the aftershock inevitable in the months to come.

Perfect for the challenge is the synergy of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) with frontline associate technology to produce meaningful cost savings and redirect human labor into higher-value activities.

RPA is a software that mimics the activity of humans carrying out rule-based, repetitive tasks within a process, typically on a computer. RPA can be trained to perform manual, repetitive tasks faster, more accurately, and at higher volumes than people. Retailers, food and beverage brands are using RPA to automate tasks in eCommerce, call centers, logistics, returns processing, warehousing, payroll, accounts receivable, workforce management, and more.

For thin-margin sectors, RPA can reduce labor by 20% upon implementation, and 52% at scale, while improving accuracy, timeliness, flexibility and compliance. By 2024, companies are projected to lower operational costs by 30% by combining RPA with improved operational processes--savings that can be reinvested into perfecting the customer experience, on and offline.

Best Practices for Getting Started

To ensure an optimal RPA launch, experts recommend pulling together a group of leaders from different functions to create a holistic roadmap to define how, where, and when RPA will be used in the business, and what impact it should deliver. Securing alignment is the primary factor that determines whether companies will experience the full benefit of RPA, or leave valuable savings on the table.

To surface the best processes for RPA, survey frontline employees who know where mundane, repetitive tasks are creating bottlenecks for the business and negatively impacting the customer experience.

Once the ideal processes are identified, revisit and optimize them to ensure they’re better, faster, error-free, and well-documented before positioning them in RPA.

Retailers, food and beverage brands often begin with standard RPA workflows--things that produce time and cost savings tied to the frequency, number of steps, or quantity of people involved in a process. Later, they implement advanced RPA workflows to impact things like quality and risk, compliance, customer experience, culture and morale. In late stages of RPA maturity, enterprises connect RPA to other technologies like AI and ML to address complex processes and unstructured data and systems--in these instances, the automation becomes intelligent and can make data-driven recommendations that create material competitive advantage.

RPA has been in the top 5 Gartner search terms for the last 16 quarters, and is the fastest-growing enterprise software segment, so analysts recommend using your roadmap to make smart partner selections. Each RPA provider has unique strengths, so the processes you’re automating should drive your choice in platform.

Key Processes to Explore

Retail, food and beverage brands often start with RPA to produce efficiencies in hiring, payroll, and workforce management, reducing the average time an HR employee spends on manual processes, estimated to be 65% of their day.They’re also automating accounts receivable to optimize invoicing, collections, and reconciliation. Information Services Group (ISG)found that RPA can produce a 43% reduction in order-to-cash processes like billing, credit, collections, and pricing for food brands, with savings ranging from 32 - 34%.

Paradise, a restaurant group, used UIPath RPA to automate the reconciliation process for food delivery from its 45 locations--something that used to take 5 days, created revenue leakage, and impacted Daily Sales Outstanding. With RPA, reconciliations are complete in 4 hours and are 100% accurate. Call centers and eCommerce are other great places to deploy RPA to automate data retrieval, returns processing, inventory management and more. Distribution and delivery functions can use RPA to automate alerts to drivers and customers, and mitigate delivery error or rejection. Marketers and Category Managers can use RPA to automate trade promotions--validating invoices, processing payment approvals, and auditing program quality.

Reinvesting in Experience

RPA automates “robotic” tasks once assigned to people, and gives brands the opportunity to reimagine the role of frontline teams to grow market share, ignite loyalty, solve problems, and create community. Reinvesting a portion of RPA savings into frontline associate technologies can reinforce a culture of efficiency, ensure teams are well-trained, and enable an exceptional customer experience. Tapping mobile platforms to provide context and prioritization, spur productivity, reduce risk, and emit real-time signals from each location helps leaders manage complex businesses dynamically and consistently.

Ultimately, COVID-19 has reaffirmed that the people in our businesses are our most precious asset. Enterprises who develop roadmaps to automate the mundane and unleash human creativity--fusing RPA with frontline associate technologies--will rebuild faster, stronger, and better when market conditions return to normal. The everyday heroes on frontline retail, food and beverage teams deserve solutions from innovative leaders who care about the customer and employee experience alike. In the future, the brands who win will be focused on people. 

Heather Larrabee is Executive Vice President at GoSpotCheck, the software company that’s reimagining how tomorrow’s workforce works, with a mobile app to distribute work to the frontline, and reporting dashboards to help leaders spot and close execution gaps, and make better decisions, faster. Heather is also4th-generation retailer with expertise in grocery, furniture, and lifestyle, and is a passionate advocate for technology’s role in unleashing the human potential inside companies that nourish people, place and planet. solutions@gospotcheck.com

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