Retail staff need more on-the-job support – Retailing Africa


by Mark Thomson. Retailers need to avoid the hidden pitfalls of giving “deskless” retail workers consumer devices. According to a global survey published in July 2022, 37% of “deskless” workers could quit within the next six months. The survey, by Boston Consulting Group (BCG), included responses from 7,000 “deskless” workers in Australia, France, Germany, India, Japan, the UK, and the US.

BCG defines “deskless” as employees who need to be physically present to do their jobs, which includes retail shop workers. In fact, retail and consumer service workers are at the highest risk (41%) of quitting.

There’s no silver bullet to solve this challenge, but employers can and should look to build a frontline first culture with leaders listening to and acting on worker views, reported the survey. But being “deskless” shouldn’t mean being “techless”. There are ways to bring the capacities and benefits of the “desk and laptop job” to the shop floor.

Retail associates need devices that are reliable, as they are the ones who must explain to customers why they can’t pull up product, pricing or shipment information in a split second when a consumer device is sluggish; offline due to a dead battery or accidental drop; or struggling to connect to wireless networks or back-office systems.

In Zebra’s 14th Annual Global Shopper Study, 85% of retail associates worldwide said they feel they could provide a better customer experience if they had handheld mobile computers with built-in scanners to use on the job. Not smartphones, but enterprise-grade handheld mobile computers. And nearly two-thirds of associates said the same of rugged tablets.

Retail associates aren’t the only ones who feel this way, either. Delivery drivers, merchandisers, and others constantly on the move want devices that can connect to any cellular or Wi-Fi network, support fast and accurate barcode scanning, and handle the bumps and bruises that devices experience when used all day, every day.

Why consumer tech isn’t working on-the-ground

VDC Research analysts have spent years studying the performance of consumer and enterprise rugged tablets in real-world settings. They want to make sure you know which ones have proven to perform better in certain scenarios so you can make the best decision. When they say that enterprise rugged tablets – as a category – outperform consumer tablets, it would benefit you and your frontline workers to understand why they have come to that conclusion.

The impacts of a wrong decision (or making a decision for the wrong reasons) are very real. Your business will suffer because your frontline workers either won’t be able to do what they need to do, or you will have to pay more to keep workers productive. Harsh Joshi, principal product manager for rugged tablets with Zebra Technologies, set-out some of the more pertinent analyst findings:

  • It has been proven that consumer tablets fail more often because they are not built to handle enterprise environments. As a result, companies with fleets of consumer tablets must deal with more frequent IT interventions and device replacements. In fact, you can expect workers to submit 20% more support tickets with consumer tablets because of their lack of rugged design and troubleshooting tools.
  • Consumer-enabled tablets experience more battery-related device downtime than enterprise rugged tablets. You’re expecting your workers to use their tablets for at least eight hours a day. Depending on your business, shared tablets may be used around the clock. But consumer batteries weren’t meant to last all shift long, much less all day. As a result, workers will lose an average of 54 minutes of lost productivity each time they have to charge their consumer tablet. When the battery reaches the end of its life after a year or so, the device – and worker – may be offline for a couple of days or weeks since, the tablet will have to be sent to a service depot for battery replacement. The actual downtime experienced will depend on the turnaround time and whether you have backup devices available for workers to use in the interim.
  • Ordinary tablet devices also have less reliable connectivity because they’re typically based on older, slower wireless standards. More specifically, consumer-grade devices are 28% more likely to experience wireless connectivity issues that impact productivity than enterprise-grade devices. Many consumer tablets are marketed as 5G and Wi-Fi 6 devices, but don’t assume a 5G device will always deliver 5G speed and capacity.
The development of enterprise tablets

The only way to avoid that downtime is to give each front-line worker an enterprise tablet which offers an optional second battery (for continuous all-day power), a field-swappable battery (for end-of-life replacements) and a proactive notification service that alerts procurement when a battery is approaching end of life. Workers can proactively swap the new battery in for the old one without having to take the enterprise tablet out of service, which means they’ll always have access to the information and tools they need to help customers and do their jobs effectively without any downtime.

Budgets are tight, the pressure to improve bottom line is high, and there’s return on investment (ROI) expectations for every technology purchase. It may seem like buying (or accepting a free/subsidised) consumer tablet is the better move for your business despite the hardship you and your team will face later because it will “save money now”. You have to look at the cost of the whole “deal” and the lifecycle cost. You’re investing in people, not just property. And people (your frontline workers) can only deliver the gains you want if they’re equipped with the right tools for the job.

Measure how well each tablet delivers the information and functionality frontline workers need to work both autonomously and collaboratively. Then figure out how that improvement in efficiency, productivity, accuracy or availability translates practically into financial gains—whether in the form of opex reductions, increased revenue or improved margins. You might find that giving workers what they need also gives you and your boss what you want: business improvements directly resulting from your decision to buy an enterprise device.


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Mark Thomson is Director of Retail Solutions EMEA, Zebra Technologies (formerly Motorola Solutions). Thomson’s exploration of the global retail landscape helps retailers gain a focus on what’s real and what works when building a retail strategy in a digital world. He works closely with retailers and hospitality businesses on developing a vision for their retail business that aims to improve customer experience and drive business efficiencies.


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