Thanks to BlackBerries, retail executives are never off duty anymore, while e-mail into stores has often proved more of a hindrance than a help on the shopfloor. So how can retailers communicate in a way that is effective and doesn’t confuse staff, asks Alison Clements.

There’s nothing more stressful than a deluge of e-mails. Store managers often find their in-boxes clogged with irrelevant messages above and beyond the product merchandising, staff scheduling, training, promotions, sales reporting and health and safety information they already struggle to read and act upon.

Meanwhile, head office marketing, finance, HR and operations managers battle a constant flow of questions from each other and the hundreds of stores they are dealing with, such as where can job application forms be ordered from? What is the procedure for getting minor maintenance work done? When will the next order of fast-selling bikinis arrive?

Executives can’t escape information overload either. Wireless e-mail capability provided by laptops and BlackBerry devices has put paid to any notion of switching off for the holidays and nuggets of vital management information must be sifted from the streams of extraneous messaging.

“It’s in retail executives’ blood to want to stay in touch all the time,” says Fran Minogue, global managing partner of the retail practice at headhunters Heidrick & Struggles. “I spoke to a retail board director on holiday in Florida last week who told me he consults his BlackBerry from 7am to 8am, gets all the info he needs, sends the necessary e-mails and then has the rest of the day to relax. In the old days, it was a case of chasing around to find a fax machine or making long distance calls from hotel rooms, which was far more time-consuming. The new culture of wireless technology is a great way of taking care of business in the shortest possible time. I would say BlackBerries are a boon to the people running UK retail, rather than a burden.”

That said, Minogue knows the value of sensible head office colleagues who need to make “the right judgment calls” about how much information to send and when to send it. “A good team will make life as easy as possible for absent directors,” she says. “And, talking to top retailers, there’s a growing concern about information overload generally within businesses. Clients often talk about cutting back on the amount of data being disseminated across departments and into stores. There’s a strong desire to be selective and use the latest technology to streamline information rather than inundate staff.”

Retailers need to review how they are communicating constantly and work hard to ensure employees are benefiting from a “one message” approach, says Mothercare communications manager Sue Baker. “Providing conflicting information can be disastrous, while repeating the same messages from different divisions is obviously time-wasting.”

In the US, technology companies including Microsoft, Google, Intel and IBM have launched The Information Overload Research Group (, which advises on best practice and ways to cut down on lost productivity because of employees drowning in digital communication.

Certainly, the tide is turning away from store e-mail in the UK. Many retailers installed e-mail systems at branch level in an effort to evolve beyond faxes and posted documents, but then withdrew it because of all the related complications. Simon Link, sales manager at retail IT provider Triangle, says: “Store managers often quickly get swamped dealing with e-mails and find themselves spending more and more time in their office on the PC, when they should be out on the shopfloor.”

He adds: “Every man and his dog sends e-mail down to branches and that means valuable management time spent ploughing through it all. It’s highly inefficient.”

Communication control

Triangle’s Retail Manager system tackles store manager productivity and retailers including House of Fraser, Mothercare, Carpetright, New Look, Body Shop, Peacocks and Matalan are using it to control the flow of communication. The software sends all e-mails through a central gatekeeping filter, which checks the quality of the message, asking: is it written in retail speak? Will store managers realistically be able to process it? Should it take precedence over other messages? The aim is to cut down the sheer volume of information flooding into stores and therefore increase efficiency.

“There’s a common danger that major strategic instructions – to do with company vision – are being sidelined in favour of the more obvious, operational things,” says Link. “Giving certain types of message a priority status helps highlight the importance of what needs to be done and streamlines implementation of strategy.”

Retailers can use the system to limit the practice of cc’ing too many people; tailor e-mails to store size or type – so small stores don’t get information that only relates to large stores, for instance – and tell recipients to take action before, during or after trading hours, depending on the urgency of the work, so that productivity in the store is not unnecessarily undermined.

Used in conjunction with a company intranet, e-mail management systems can also provide banks of information that colleagues can tap into, reducing the need to e-mail or phone head office with questions. Users of Retail Manager’s Ask the Expert function click on the area they want to find out about – whether it’s payroll, HR, operations or product-related, for instance – and find frequently asked questions clearly answered. Colleagues’ BlackBerries can have this functionality, which is of great use to area managers in the field.

For many years, New Look’s head office communicated to stores via EPoS. A rudimentary one-page sheet of instructions could be printed off each day, listing which price promotions to launch or take off, but the bulk of pictorial material showing styles by line and planograms for stores had to be painstakingly photocopied at head office and posted out. Documents got lost and stores tended to receive posted paperwork at different times. This prompted New Look to develop an intranet and today the five-year old system, known as Buzz, is central to the fashion chain’s merchandising and promotional operations, as well as helping with general store management issues.

“In each store, it’s available on one till and the back office on a PC. This means that all branches can see information head office sends out within 20 minutes, instead of having to wait one or two days,” says New Look communications manager Lisa Booth.

The system, designed by Triangle and incorporating the Retail Manager application, allows store managers to tap into the latest information on deliveries, stock control, promotions, window displays and Christmas planning instantly and gives access to a suite of management information reports, as well as sections on HR, training, health and safety, and policies and procedures. Stores can print off forms – such as job application and customer complaint documents – saving time, cutting communication traffic and freeing up storage space in stores.

“Directors asked why they couldn’t e-mail into stores, but we have gone for the Ask the Expert option instead,” says Booth. “We wanted to avoid e-mail overload and this system has solved the problem. It also helps us see exactly which questions stores are asking the eight participating departments, so we can respond more efficiently over time.”

BT Expedite chief executive Helen Slaven says store staff need product and process information in order to do their job, but they also need instruction on how to do their job in line with company policy and developments, which might change over time. E-learning solutions can help retailers train front-line staff efficiently without the need for endless communication to and from head office.

BT Expedite has developed Virtual View and Learn (VVL), which aims to put all the latest in-store initiatives and product information at the fingertips of people that need it the most. It’s a touch-driven application, sitting behind the live till system, so the information is constantly tailored to the store and updates regularly.

“It has always been difficult for retail employees to keep abreast of their product range and this is not helped by the swathes of other information they are required to remember,” says Slaven. “Having technology at their fingertips that can reference any relevant procedures or product information they need on the shopfloor can significantly reduce unnecessary communications with head office. Because these e-learning tools work on web-based technology, they can also be accessed on mobile devices, allowing staff free rein of the store.”

Similarly, automated stock control and replenishment technology greatly reduces the need for regular communication between stores and head office, says Slaven, again easing pressure on store managers.

There’s no doubt that being in control of information flow is critical to running an efficient, profitable retail operation. Culturally, too, there are benefits from keeping the channels of communication uncluttered. Too much direction from head office functions can be seen as checking up on staff and, according to one retail operations manager who asked not to be named: “Being bombarded with instructions, information, feedback forms and more forms has little to do with selling to the customers.”

Today’s unstable economy means distracting staff from selling would be even more hazardous than usual, says KPMG head of retail Helen Dickinson. “Retailers can’t afford to miss sales, so staff need to be out on the shopfloor and senior management need to be active and focused. Information overload isn’t going to help anyone.”