The intelligent automation market is set to explode, according to KPMG. Enterprise investment will soar from $12.4 billion to $231.9 billion by 2025. A key driver of this growth is predicted to be robotic process automation (RPA). RPA is software that increases productivity and reduces errors by automating the execution of repetitive tasks. The productivity and accuracy gains are immense, which is why RPA is already used to automate back-office business tasks in multiple industries. The retail sector is no exception, and smart retailers are already exploring how RPA can help accelerate automation and increase competitive advantage.
RPA And The Retail Industry
So what is RPA? It is software that can be programmed to do repetitive tasks across applications and systems. The software is taught a workflow with multiple steps and applications, such as handling a customer return, which includes a series of repetitive steps: sending a message confirming receipt of the return, updating the inventory system, making the payment adjustment to the customer, ensuring that the internal billing system is updated and so on. Traditionally returns processing has been carried out manually and has been a costly endeavor. Now with RPA retailers can manage returns without adding to the cost or causing delay.
Inventory management is an area where RPA is starting to be implemented. The software automates all the related processes, from managing the stock in/stock out transaction to creating the necessary invoicing. RPA enables the seamless and accurate transfer of data between the different systems, including warehouse, finance and market reporting.
Data collection and decision making is another area where RPA software delivers significant efficiencies. Before deploying RPA, retailers had to rely on data being collected manually from a vast array of different systems. An employee was then required to transfer the data into Excel and subsequently create a report. The task of getting the right information into the spreadsheet can take 90% of the time, leaving only 10% for actual analysis. Now with RPA, the transfer of data is seamless, allowing the employee to focus on the analysis and resulting in more informed decisions.
It is not just back-office systems where RPA software is making a difference. Another major cost center for retailers is managing customer contact centers. With an RPA-fueled interface customer information is found more quickly, and orders can be processed more efficiently as the software can fill in repetitive fields instantaneously, unlike when humans handle this. It also can ensure that updates to customer information, such as a new home address, reach every system, removing the scenario of customers having to repeatedly follow up requesting the same change — resulting in a much-improved user experience.
By harnessing RPA to take on mundane, repetitive tasks, there are multiple productivity and efficiency benefits for retailers. Previously these tasks, which could take several hours, are now completed in minutes and are error free. The automation significantly reduces operating costs, which in an industry with razor-thin margins is a key benefit.
RPA has the added benefit of increasing customer satisfaction with smoother, faster processes, behind applications that provide users with an improved customer experience. Another advantage is that it works with existing business systems, so retailers do not have to invest in replacing their legacy IT infrastructure. RPA also reduces the burden on management as software robots do exactly what they are told to do very quickly, never take a day off and don’t require benefits, unlike the human alternative!
RPA And Retail: The Future Is Bright
In 2019 and beyond there will be an increasing wave of RPA deployments in the retail industry. McKinsey estimates that over 50% of the work in the retail sector can be automated. Ultimately RPA will be widely deployed to automate processes, both customer facing and behind the scenes, ranging from logistics and supply chain management, accounting and finance, inventory management through to managing customer campaigns.
RPA will be used to automate credit checks and authorize returns and ultimately handle customer complaints. As voice interfaces along with VR and AR in retail continue to proliferate this will help accelerate the uptake of RPA, as it can control the application software without requiring any integration. This integration hurdle with legacy systems, or even worse replacing legacy systems, is often cited as a critical factor slowing down the uptake of VR/AR. This is where RPA comes into play, by acting as a bridge between the new and old systems. So how does this work? VR/AR will get the answer from the customer, VR/AR will pass this information to RPA, and RPA can then go and fill in all the old forms. RPA’s ability to move data between different systems automatically, and fill out repetitive legacy forms, makes it the perfect, cost-effective solution to this challenge.
While there is much debate about automation replacing the need for humans, the role of RPA is to take on tasks that human workers traditionally don't want to do. The increasing use of RPA in retail will impact the workforce by allowing humans to shift their focus to more value-add tasks and become more productive.
RPA is in the early stages of deployment in the retail industry, and as it’s augmented with AI, machine learning, mobile and the cloud, the possibilities are limitless. RPA is becoming a crucial weapon that will help level the playing field for many retailers under siege from both Amazon and the need to accelerate digital transformation.
Antony Edwards is COO of Eggplant. He studied computer engineering at the University of South Wales, Australia, and worked as a developer in Sydney before joining IBM Research in New York. Moving to London, Edwards joined mobile operating system builder Symbian, moving from system architecture to eventually become a VP and member of the executive team. Prior to joining Eggplant, he held the position of CTO with a major U.S. online entertainment company.