Social Networking Applied to Retail Inventory Control

What will the store of the future look like, and what will it be like working in them?

According to technology analysts, fashion retail is on the verge of taking a big leap forward in technology.

Don’t expect something out of quot;The Jetsonsquot; or quot;Star Trek,quot; said Leslie Hand of Framingham, Mass.–based technology-analysis group IDC Retail Insights. Rather, Hand said, the store of the future will take advantage of mobile technology, social media and even online games such as Farmville.

Social media, games and mobile communications will enable retailers to boost efficiency and worker productivity, Hand wrote in her recently released paper, titled quot;Perspective: The Future of Work in Retail Operations—Creating a Platform for a Productive and Engaged Workforce.quot;

Hand’s vision of retail is still the stuff of science fiction. But retailers are already communicating and interacting with their consumers in the same way they engage with their friends—through mobile-communications networks and social media.

According to Hand, retail workers could be more highly engaged with retail product, store inventory and operations if retail management set up a platform where all store information is on a network that mixes the functions of social media and mobile communications—perhaps cloud computing. Workers would be able to build a quot;rich experiencequot; for consumers. This would boost efficiency and sales because sales associates would always potentially have answers to consumers’ questions at their fingertips, she said.

quot;There’s the classic example: A customer asks a question, and you don’t have the answer,quot; Hand said. quot;But you know who has the answer. The social enables you to connect to other people hellip; to better support customers in the store.quot;

Sales associates would not have to waste time walking to the cash register or to the back room to find whomever has the answer. Instead, the question would be answered by the store’s social-media network—in the same way Facebook users query their friends.

Managers could use Farmville-like games to motivate workers and boost productivity. The games could be more engaging than the old reward-driven system that awards prizes to employees who meet or exceed set sales goals.

Retail productivity, instead, could be posted in a social media–style game, and the goal would be to beat the top performers. quot;We’re more inspired by peers than rewards,quot; Hand said. quot;We want to look good in the eyes of the people we work with.quot;

Mobile communications also is represented strongly in quot;Deloitte Store 3.0, Planning Tomorrow’s Store Today,quot; a recently released paper by consulting firm Deloitte. The report posits that all commerce platforms will be integrated much more fully than they currently are. Shoppers will be able to enjoy the best features of bricks-and-mortar stores, mobile phone commerce and e-commerce—often at the same spot.

Marketing information will be sharply tailored to specific consumers’ desires. And because retailers will be doing much more marketing and selling online, they will cut down on store size and locations.

Technological change seems inevitable, but there won’t be one model that will fit all retailers.

Casey C. Chroust, executive vice president of retail operations at trade group Retail Industry Leaders Association, advised retailers to consider their business model and specific needs before they adopt new retail technology.

An independent boutique’s needs should be much different than the technology needs of a specialty chain with more than 100 locations. quot;See what fits and what does not fit,quot; Chroust said. —Andrew Asch