Tim Sauer 06/14/17 1:09 PM

Three Pain Points That Only IT Leaders Of Retail Chains Can Understand

The retail industry is a constantly changing, ever evolving environment into which an ever-growing number of different technologies are frequently introduced in an effort to improve the customer experience and the company’s profits.  As explained in our previous post addressing the challenges that IT leaders of Restaurant Chains face, there are just as many unique pain points that the IT staffs of Retail Chains must deal with on a daily basis.  

Using insights gathered from several retail customers and some industry research, here are Three Pain Points that only IT Leaders of Retail Chains Can Understand

The Talent Pool 

Large retail chains can’t afford to have IT person on-staff in every store.  Instead, they employ an IT Help Desk staff in a central location to field calls from their stores whenever technical issues or outages occur.  While Help Desk teams can perform triage remotely in some cases, in most situations they must rely on store personnel to be their on-site hands to perform certain diagnostic procedures.  While on-site personnel in many industries may be perfectly capable of assisting a central help desk with their efforts, consider the differences between personnel found in retail versus most other industries.

The two most significant differences in the Retail Talent Pool were highlighted in a report by the National Study of the Changing Workforce (NSCW) which said:

  • First, those in retail are less likely to have achieved a degree beyond high school or a GED.
  • Second, and perhaps most important, retail employees are more likely to include those at both ends of the generational spectrum—that is, the youngest and oldest employees.

Almost all the retail employees on the younger end of this generational spectrum are proficient with mobile devices.  Over the last ten years, as smart phones & tablets have replaced the television as most parents’ electronic babysitter of choice, and as most public schools have replaced the old desktop PCs in computer labs with iPads/tablets and Chromebooks, the younger generation just entering the workforce has been exposed to wireless devices since a very early age.  But most of them have had little to no exposure to the wired network technologies that dominate every business environment.  So imagine the vastness of the technology gap which must be navigated by a Help Desk IT Technician when the in-store employee with whom they are speaking has never even plugged a Cat5e/Cat6 patch cable into a computer before.  It would be like expecting someone who is an expert at loading music on a digital media player to be capable of replacing the needle on an old turntable.  While almost everyone can follow instructions and accomplish these tasks, the point here is that there's often a significant learning curve involved.

The older end of the generational spectrum that dominates the other half of the retail workforce can be just as challenging as young kids to Retail IT Help Desk staffs.  A humorous example was shared with me by Derek Gravitt Jr, the Hardware Specialist Supervisor at National Vision – one of the largest optical retailers in the United States that operates over 950 retail locations under the brand names America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses, Eyeglass World, Vision Centers by Walmart, Vista Optical, and the on-base Optical Centers at most of the US Military Exchanges throughout the United States.

“A few years back” Mr. Gravitt told me, “we had an older gentleman – probably in his late-50’s - employed as a front-desk receptionist at one of our retail centers. He called our central help desk one day pleading with us to make his computer run faster because he had a line of customers out the door and it was taking far too long for him to enter each transaction.”  After proving himself unable to provide the Help Desk with the information needed to quickly identify his computer (IP address, model number, operating system, etc.), he had to wait until the Help Desk team could find it through an asset database. At that point, the Help Desk staffer informed the elderly Retail employee that he was now going to take control of his PC to perform a speed test and other diagnostics.

Mr. Gravitt said that upon seeing a mouse cursor start moving around on his screen, the conversation progressed like this:

Retail Clerk:  “What the heck is that thing moving around on my screen?”

Help Desk:  “It’s just your mouse cursor…we’ve temporarily taken control of it.”

Retail Clerk:  “I’ve never seen that thing before….what’s a mouse?”

Help Desk:  “It’s that thing sitting on the desk beside your computer…the device you use to navigate from one screen to the next when you are checking customers out.”

Retail Clerk:  “I don’t have anything sitting on the desk beside my computer.”

Help Desk (Perplexed):  “Then how do you get from one screen to the next when you run customers through the checkout process?”

Retail Clerk:  “I just use the Tab and Arrow keys to move around.”

Help Desk:  “You’ve got to be kidding?  It’s so much easier using the mouse – it’s a hump-shaped device that should be connected by a thin cable to the back of your computer.  Don’t you see something like that?”

Recognizing the description, the elderly Retail Clerk asked “Do you mean my foot-rest?

At some point prior to this gentleman being hired, the mouse stopped working and was probably tossed behind the computer by a frustrated employee where it eventually slipped behind the desk and landed on the floor.  Being completely unfamiliar with computers prior to starting his job, this older retail clerk spent several years using only a keyboard to navigate a GUI software platform, while resting his tired feet on the mouse. 

While I concede that a wheel-mouse has the potential of delivering a therapeutic foot massage, the creative repurposing of technology is not the point of this story.  Rather, it is to emphasize the significant technological (and geographic) divide that separates Retail IT Help Desk staffs from their remote store employees, and the incredible patience the IT Staffers must exhibit when relying on store employees for systems triage assistance.

Imprint - Swipe - Tap - Chip (lather, rinse, repeat)

If there’s one thing that gets an IT Manager hot under the collar, it’s when they have to replace a perfectly good, fully-operational piece of equipment – especially when that piece of equipment resides in every one of their hundreds or thousands of locations.  Such has been the case with the devices used to process credit card transactions in retail environments.

When credit cards first gained popularity with consumers as the preferred payment method (over cash), the transactions were processed using clunky, mechanical devices consisting of a manually-operated roller device and carbon-paper that received an imprint of the credit card.  But when the computer & Internet era matured, retail companies began migrating to electronic, online payment processing systems – making this yet another system owned by the IT staff, and another source of headaches.

The earliest card reader systems communicated over traditional telephone lines via dial-up modems.  Retail IT Leaders accepted that challenge, deployed those systems, and taught their help desk staffs to troubleshoot and maintain them. But then the next-generation of IP-based card readers were introduced, which forced the retail IT leaders to not only plan the roll-out of new card reader hardware to each of their stores, but in many cases also upgrade/replace the antiquated network infrastructure (structured cabling systems, switches & routers) in the stores so they could handle the additional - and mission-critical - electronic payments traffic.

Just as Retail companies got comfortable with the swipe readers, the credit card companies introduced Tap-and-Go cards which required a new card reader to be deployed to every retail store (at least for those who chose to adopt the Tap payment method). And that still wasn't the end of the headaches for the Retail IT teams.

Most recently, the Payment Card Industry (PCI) modified their Data Security Standards (PCI DSS) to include requirements for retail merchants to deploy new card readers that can accommodate the Chip cards standard.  While this new technology isn’t required by law, it is required by the five largest credit card brands—Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express, and JCB, who collectively make up the PCI Security Standards Council - for any retail company who wants to remain PCI compliant.

David Morton, Director of IT for the retail chain Charming Charlie, says "PCI compliance is a devil that has multiple purposes. While PCI requirements were established to protect credit card companies and consumers, even retailers who adhere completely to the PCI standards still don't have the level of protection [from hackers] that consumers expect."  When you consider how much it costs retailers annually just to remain PCI compliant, when compliance doesn't guarantee protection from data theft, you'll understand why it causes C-level retail executives and their IT staffs a lot of heartburn.

Depending on the size of the retail company, the cost to become and remain PCI compliant can range from $1,000 to over $100,000 annually.  If you’re thinking retailers must be crazy to dish out that kind of money every year to be compliant with a security policy that isn’t even required by law, consider the alternative. Square Inc. - a mobile payment technology leader - says "If a business does not comply with PCI standards, they are at risk for data breaches, fines, card replacement costs, costly forensic audits and investigations into their business, not to mention brand damage, and more."  In other words, Retailers are damned if they do, and even more damned if the don't.

For as long as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard continues to modify the requirements for organizations and sellers to safely and securely accept, store, process, and transmit cardholder data during credit card transactions, Retail IT Leaders must be prepared to put other strategic IT initiatives on hold and roll out new card reader systems whenever the Payment Card Industry decides that a change in technology is necessary to prevent new forms of fraud and data breaches.  And this is a pain point that few of their colleagues in other industries ever face. 

Sign, Sign, everywhere a sign

The way retailers communicate with consumers has changed dramatically in the last ten years.  Not just with eCommerce solutions that cater to the growing number of online shoppers, but also with the in-store messaging changing from print to digital media – in the form of Digital Signage. 

Digital Signage is a retail marketers dream come true.  With the ability to change content on the fly, use day-parting to schedule advertising messages based upon the time of day, or even on a consumer’s gender (via facial recognition technology), most retailers -- and the manufacturers of products sold through retail chains - have shifted their marketing dollars from print ads to digital signage. If you ask the IT leader of any Retail Chain how they feel about Digital Signage, chances are their response will be far less enthusiastic.

Digital Signage represents yet another source of traffic that must run over the retail store network.  With inventory systems, point of sale systems, security/surveillance systems, paging systems, and mobile Wifi networks to name just a few, Retail IT Leaders are constantly being pressured to doing more with less by running more and more systems over an existing – often antiquated – structured cabling infrastructure.  And digital signage represents just one more straw on the proverbial camel’s back.

While many digital signage systems utilize a forward & store foundation – wherein the content shown on the screens can be scheduled to transmit across the network during off-hours (i.e. overnight) and be stored on the media players connected to the digital displays (so they don’t over-tax network bandwidth during peak business hours) - there is still potential for them to consume bandwidth during peak hours when some of the content is Internet or app based and requires updates at regular intervals (such as local weather, RSS news feeds, etc.). 

Despite how much or little bandwidth gets consumed by digital signage systems, the pain point for Retail IT Leaders and their Help Desk staffs is that they must learn to support & troubleshoot the digital signage hardware and software – on top of all the other systems they manage.  While they have grudgingly accepted responsibility for these systems, the troubleshooting and replacement of digital displays and media players have become an ongoing headache for almost every Retail IT Leader.


Regardless of which industry they work in, IT Leaders around the globe share many similar challenges and headaches as they plan for, deploy, maintain, and replace various communications technologies.  But until you've dealt with an employee who sincerely believed his computer mouse was designed to massage the arches of his aching feet, you haven't walked one step in the shoes of the IT professionals who keep the Retail industry running.

(Got a story of your own to share? We'd love to hear it. Email Tim Sauer at tim.sauer@techservicetoday.com)

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