UCaaS in a Retail Environment

Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS) can be deployed in just about any industry. As long as employees communicate with one another, there is a need for a UCaaS platform. However, the specific functionality required might differ between verticals.

Let’s talk about the retail industry, specifically.

Most retail brands have a corporate office somewhere. These users are going to need the ability to chat with one another, make and receive calls, maybe use video conferencing – everything you’d think of when you hear “Unified Communications.”

But what about the retail stores?

Differences Between Retail Stores and Corporate

The retail store environment greatly differs from a corporate or headquarters location when it comes to UCaaS. If you think about the last retail store you were in (for me, Costco), you likely didn’t see employees video conferencing with one another or instant messaging their peers. These are the types of communication you might see in a corporate environment, but there’s just no need for them in a retail setting.

Retail users only need voice, and they usually don’t want to pay for superfluous features.

What’s the point of a retail store? To make as many sales as they can and bring as much revenue as possible into the company. For that reason, the retail vertical has historically been one of the last adopters of new technology. If what they have now is working, why spend more on something you don’t need?

Meanwhile, corporate employees will likely benefit from those extra features: IM/presence, video/web conferencing, team chat, and more, while their retail counterparts are fine with just voice.

Another glaring difference between retail and corporate is the setting. Corporate likely has the same people coming in every day to work a set number of hours, whereas retail stores might have different employees throughout the day or week. This can be tricky when considering UCaaS licensing.

Generally, each employee will get their own UCaaS license with their own business phone number (DID). This is fine for corporate users who work every day. However, a retail store might have 10-20 employees, but only 4-5 working at the same time. No one is calling the store for specific employees; they simply want their questions answered by whomever can help. Therefore, the stores don’t need individual licenses for each employee and again, they shouldn’t be required to pay for something they don’t need.

Challenges with UCaaS in Retail Stores

Due to the lack of required features and the need for concurrent pricing, UCaaS providers have traditionally struggled to adapt to the unique needs of a retail environment. However, they are catching on to this and accommodating for it. We’ll talk about this in the next section.

Aside from different work schedules, retail stores also tend to have a higher turnover rate than a corporate environment. This occurs for a few reasons:

  1. Seasonality. The stores will need to hire more staff during busier times of year, but might let them go once the store slows down.
  2. Retail positions tend to pay lower salaries than corporate. This means staff might work at a store until they move on to something better.

All of this goes back to licensing. With a higher turnover rate, fluctuating seasonality, and the unique work schedules in a retail environment, assigning (and paying for) one license for each user (i.e. named licensing) simply doesn’t work. Yet that’s what most UCaaS providers offer.

The biggest difference when switching from a premise-based PBX to a cloud-based phone system is the way we connect to it. On-premises PBXs will use POTS, PRI, or SIP trunking to connect to the PSTN to make/take phone calls. However, with UCaaS, you’re connecting to the phone system over the internet. This inevitably means reliable internet, ideally a wired connection, at each location.

This can be a challenge for retail stores in rural locations, or inside shopping malls, where the internet options are limited.

When UCaaS first came to market, these were valid limitations that might prevent retail adoption. However, over time, UCaaS providers have been able to adapt in unique ways.

How to Overcome These Challenges

Here are a few ways modern UCaaS platforms can combat some of the challenges we talked about above.

Challenge #1: Internet

When it comes to the internet, you can’t always buy a better connection. However, a technology that can help make the available internet as effective as possible is SD-WAN. At its core, SD-WAN allows a customer to utilize the bandwidth and redundancy of two different circuits. In the retail space, this is usually a broadband circuit as primary and an LTE circuit as backup. When the primary circuit fails, the SD-WAN device will automatically fail over to the LTE option. Certain SD-WAN devices can also serve as WiFi access points, firewalls, and more, to have a single device for all network requirements in a store.

–> Curious to learn more about the different types of SD-WAN? Check out this article! <–

In addition to offering SD-WAN, several UCaaS providers can also provide local survivability devices. These are physical devices that sit on-site and connect to POTS/PRI lines for backup. If the internet goes completely down, the store still has a way to communicate with other stores or dial out in case of an emergency.

Another form of local survivability is the mobile app that comes with most UCaaS platforms. The manager can have the mobile app downloaded on their phone to use in case the internet goes down. They can use their cellular data to communicate outside the store.

One provider we work with even offers older cell phones that can tie into the UCaaS system and 4-digit extension dial to other stores in the event of an internet outage.

Challenge #2: Licensing

This challenge has become easier to address over the years. Instead of requiring a UCaaS license per person, providers can now offer a certain number of licenses per store, which can be used by whomever is working that day.

The manager should likely get their own license, but it can still be generic such as “manager store 13” or something similar. This will help with the turnover we often see in the retail vertical, since a new manager will be able to log into that same license.

Challenge #3: New Sites and Acquisitions

Of course, if a retail chain is doing well, they will be continuously expanding their footprint and either opening new stores, or acquiring businesses that they’ll want to integrate as quickly as possible.

UCaaS can help facilitate the quick deployment because it becomes “rinse and repeat.” Each new store that opens will use the same process to deploy as the last, and it can happen as quickly as the IT administrator can add the new licenses (about 30 seconds each) and order new phones (shipping times may vary).

Innovative Ways to Use UCaaS in Retail

Aside from mitigating the challenges in the retail space, we’ve seen stores use UCaaS in innovative ways that might not be possible with legacy on-prem equipment.

Customer experience is by far the biggest driver when it comes to upgrading technology in retail. Brands have realized that customers can go anywhere, and they will go elsewhere if they have even a single poor experience. One way that stores have started to increase their customer experience is through SMS communication. A manager can text a customer and say something like “Hey Sarah, those shoes you asked for last time are in stock. Should I save you a pair?” Communicating with customers the way they want to communicate is huge. I won’t answer a call from a shoe store, but I would text them back.

When someone does call into the store, they can be greeted by an auto attendant that can filter calls and give callers basic information about things like store hours or how to make a return. That way, callers can get the information they need without ever talking to someone, and the store employees can spend more time on revenue-generating activities.

Another huge driver in this space is branding. Companies care about the way they look to their customers. I recently worked on a UCaaS deployment to a large furniture chain and they opted to get rid of all their traditional desk phones and use iPads and iPhones instead. Since UCaaS comes with a mobile app, it’s easy to download on smart devices and then replace old school-looking phones.

They also decided to add in their own customizable greeting for their auto attendant so callers get a consistent branding experience. An example of this can be a recording (e.g., “Thank you for calling ABC store…”), a recognizable slogan or jingle, or anything else that would help the caller associate that store with the retail brand.

Lastly, of course the company wants to make their employees’ lives easier to help decrease the amount of turnaround they see. UCaaS can help with this, too! Having the same phone system for the retail workers and corporate makes it a lot easier for the two to communicate with each other on a day-to-day basis (via 4-digit extension dialing, team chat, and more), or for company-wide meetings and trainings (via video and web conferencing).

The Way We Communicate Is Always Changing

Years ago, phone calls were widely preferred over other forms of communication. Now, if you try to call a millennial, you might never hear back, but you’ll get a quick response through text!

That said, preferences will always vary. So, companies that interact directly with people (e.g., retail) need to adapt and communicate the way their customers do with friends and family, if they want the best possible experience. Because UCaaS provides multiple channels of communication, it is an excellent tool to enable efficient communication between retailers and customers.

If this sounds like something your company can benefit from, feel free to fill out our UCaaS Interactive Quick Assessment! We’ll be in touch soon to help narrow down the ever-growing market of UCaaS providers and find the solution that’s best for you.

Guest Collaborators: Brent Wilford, Dave Watson, and Niko O’Hara