Quality underpins everything we do here at Harrison. We caught up with some of the members of our quality team recently to find out more about their work, our company’s approach to quality and the main quality-related challenges facing the retail industry.
Liam Naran is Harrison’s Senior Quality and Compliance Officer. On a typical day, his works involves a mixture of data gathering, investigation and general quality control activities.
“I’ll start by looking at anything that’s a top priority to the business,” he explains. “If any issues have been reported, I’ll open an investigation if I need to and begin pulling some data together for that.
“I’ll then look at any products that may be coming in on order and whether any quality assurance inspection needs to be performed on these types of items. We do have certain known products that are quality-sensitive where audit inspection is routinely required.”
Working on compliance documentation is another regular part of Liam’s role. “These may be documents relating to accreditations like ISO 9001 or quality control Standard Operating Procedures for the business.”
But, when it comes down it, what is quality? How do we measure it and what steps are we taking to ensure that our products and services are delivered to the highest of standards?
Mark Adams has overall responsibility for quality at Harrison and believes that a holistic approach of embedding quality principles into each part of the business is fundamental to building long-term customer satisfaction and loyalty.
Perceptions of quality
“The question of how to define quality is an interesting one to consider. We support a wide variety of customers and clients at Harrison, across a range of industries and countries around the world, and everyone perceives and understands quality in a slightly different way. For us though, it falls into two main categories: quality of product and quality of service.
Quality of product is, fundamentally, how good a product actually is. Has it been finished to a high standard? Has it been produced to the required specifications? Will it fulfil its purpose? If the answers to these questions are positive then the product can be said to be of a high quality. Steps like sample approvals, prototype testing and first-off production inspection are all ways to help ensure that these high quality standards are met each time.
Quality of service is much broader. It encompasses not only the support that we provide to customers after a product has been purchased, but also how they interact with our business throughout the whole customer journey. The impact and effectiveness of our communications, messaging, imagery and online presence are all part of the quality of our service.
Quality versus specification
One of the most important distinctions to make is the difference between quality and specification. Simply put, specification is how sophisticated a product is and it takes into account everything from a product’s material and dimensions to its features and finishes. Quality is about adherence to that specification.
So whether you have a simple stock product made from low-grade materials or a complex bespoke product made via innovative emerging technology, the quality of these two products should be identical, zero defects. Communicating this effectively to our customers helps to reassure them that a lower specification doesn’t mean lower quality.”
Quality challenges in the retail industry
Sustainability is one of the biggest challenges facing the retail industry both generally and in terms of quality too. Retailers across the board are under pressure to reduce their plastic use and to recycle what they do use. However, maintaining the required levels of quality and specification while switching to sustainable alternatives represents a significant challenge.
The maturity of the recycling economy and attitudes towards sustainability vary dramatically around the world. Some markets haven’t embraced recycling to the same degree as others and this includes a number of major supplier locations. There can be an absence of reliable, recycled raw material streams in these countries, making it difficult for companies to source sustainable raw materials that have the same level of consistent quality as their less sustainable counterparts. This is an industry-wide issue.
It’s a situation that requires careful management and the prioritisation of quality over cost. At Harrison we’re finding ways to be commercially innovative in order to deliver sustainability whilst maintaining our competitive market position.
Packaging is another major area where quality problems can be experienced. Given the prevalence of overseas shipping and the number of steps that can be involved in any supply chain, it’s not surprising that shipments run the risk of getting damaged in transit. This can have cost, quality and reputational implications for any company.
Proactive attention to packaging design at an early project stage and close collaboration with our supply chain can help to mitigate these issues. However incidents of damaged goods are occasionally encountered, necessitating a willingness to quickly address and resolve any problems to the satisfaction of the customer or client.
Quality challenges in the retail industry
Building quality into our processes
Mark’s team are part of a much wider company focus on quality that goes beyond the product.
“Here at Harrison, we aspire to a quality-first culture. Each member of the team should embrace the value that quality is of the utmost importance and seek to build quality into every area of our business.
In terms of product development, we include pro-active quality planning at every stage. This allows us to identify any issues and address them then and there, rather than unconsciously passing them onto the next step in the process. It’s about asking the right questions at the right time and learning from the lessons of the past.”
Ensuring supplier quality
“We source products from all over the world through our global supplier network. Before a new supplier joins that network, we’ll assess their quality procedures and ensure that their management values are compatible with ours. We’ll also review their international accreditations and references from other customers to ensure we can have full confidence in their approach to quality.
Advances in digital technology give us the opportunity to maintain a close relationship with our suppliers regardless of where they’re based. Virtual factory tours, regular video conference calls and shared documentation are all ways in which we can collaborate remotely and address any quality-related issues promptly and effectively.
Additionally, we carry out regular product audit reviews with our suppliers to ensure that the quality of their products remains consistent. This allows us to be confident that the product they’re supplying a year down the line is identical to the product that was originally signed off for production.”
The first thing that a potential customer looks for in a supplier is a quality accreditation. We hold ISO 9001 certification, which demonstrates our ongoing commitment to a quality management system. A robust and functional QMS is the foundation for consistently providing products and services that meet customer and regulatory requirements. ISO 9001 is based on a number of quality management principles including a strong customer focus, the motivation and engagement of senior management, a process-oriented approach and continuous improvement.
Sustainability sits alongside quality as one of Harrison’s main priorities and so we also hold ISO 14001 certification. This accreditation maps out a framework that a company or organisation can follow to set up an effective environmental management system and underpins the steps we’re taking to reduce our environmental impact while maintaining our high-quality levels.
We are a certified carbon reduced operation, and are continuing to work at measuring and reducing the carbon footprint of our direct operations. Our commitment to continually improve our business practices and corporate social responsibility management, has also recently earned us a Gold EcoVadis Sustainability Rating.
It’s clear that there are lots of perspectives and factors to take into account when it comes to overseeing and understanding quality. But for our Senior Quality and Compliance Officer Liam and his day-to-day work at Harrison, it ultimately all comes down to two main aims.
“My role is about ensuring that we supply the best quality products to our customers that we can,” he concludes. “And ensuring that the relationships we have with our customers and suppliers are the best that they can be.”
Automation has been changing the face of the retail industry for decades. From the early days of factory-based robotics through to more recent developments like self-checkouts, chatbots and delivery drones, retailers have always sought ways to streamline their processes, get ahead of the competition and optimise the customer experience.
In this article, we’re going to explore some of the recent automation and technological trends in retail and consider what impact they’re having on the industry, workers and customers.
A till-free future?
Imagine walking into a store where you simply scan a QR code, choose your items and walk out – all without bypassing a checkout. Where a network of cameras and weighted shelves monitor which products you pick. Where payments are taken automatically and you receive a receipt via your phone later.
It seems like a bit of a fantastical concept, but it’s one that more and more leading grocers have been trialling in the UK over the last few years, with Amazon leading the way. The benefits of this approach include a lack of queueing, fewer out-of-stock items and reduced shrinkage. The downsides arguably include a reduction in staff numbers, and a level of technology and unfamiliarity that could be off-putting to consumers.
It’s this final point that perhaps explains why the UK’s path to a till-free future hasn’t been as straightforward as you might expect. When Sainsbury’s became the first UK retailer to launch a completely cashier-less store back in 2019, the trial only lasted three months before the company reinstated a manned till and two self-service checkouts. At the time, Sainsbury’s reported that while the new store format created excitement, “not all our customers are ready for totally till-free shopping”.
The company tried again in 2021, in a year that also saw Tesco and Aldi launch their own trials, but since then the widespread adoption of this new approach has stalled. Even Amazon, who pioneered the concept with their ‘Just Walk Out’ technology, halted plans for further expansion in 2022 and closed one of their stores earlier this year.
On paper, till-free shopping clearly has potential. But there’s a growing recognition that, as Sainsbury’s said in 2019, not enough customers are ready for it yet and that a hybrid approach with different types of checkout options is more appealing to the masses. Perhaps this will change as the younger generations that have grown up surrounded by this type of technology mature, but for the moment the idea of completely automated and cashier-less stores across the UK seems a long way away.
Creating an in-store experience
Even before Covid and the current cost-of-living crisis, the UK’s high streets were struggling. The ease and accessibility of online shopping means that retailers need to give customers additional reasons to venture out of their houses and visit a brick-and-mortar store.
Augmented reality (AR) is one of the technological innovations that some retailers have turned to in order to entice shoppers through their doors. AR works by superimposing a computer-generated image on top of what the user sees in the real world, with Snapchat filters and the popular Pokémon Go mobile game being some famous examples.
In a retail setting, examples of AR include the following:
- Virtual fitting rooms. These allow customers to try on items virtually without having to physically touch them, so that they can check the size, style and fit before buying. While the benefits of virtual fitting rooms in an online environment are clear, retailers like H&M are also installing them in their physical stores for added convenience, to support online sales and to build connections with customers.
- Augmented reality windows. These windows offer interactive experiences that help to entice shoppers into stores, such as this one that was created as part of the famous Harrods 2021 Christmas window display.
- Virtual navigation. AR navigation systems help to guide shoppers through physical stores quickly and effectively, while retailers can also use them to provide additional product information.
AR helps customers to try-before-they-buy more efficiently, it reduces customer returns, and it increases customer and brand engagement. And given that, according to data released by Shopify, retailers who add 3D content to their stores see a 94% conversion lift on average, it’s not surprising that more and more are expanding into the augmented reality space.
Geofencing is another approach that retailers are using to engage with customers. A location-based technology, geofencing allows retailers to create a virtual fence around a physical location (such as their store) using GPS, Wi-Fi or mobile phone data. Then, when customers pass into that area they can trigger targeted marketing such as a text, in-app notification or mobile advert.
It’s a clever way for brick-and-mortar retailers to deliver offers and deals straight into the hands of their customers, to create a personalised shopping experience by providing directions to products or reminders about regularly buys, and even to target potential customers that are shopping at a rival store.
AR and geofencing, along with more online-focused approaches and technologies such as gamification and the metaverse, are some of the main ways that retailers are seeking to create the immerse shopping experiences of the future. The challenge will be how to get the most out of these digital innovations while bringing their target audiences along for the ride.
Improving the bottom line
As well as customer-facing advancements, automation is also becoming increasingly common behind the scenes in the retail sector.
Many retailers are investing in software that more effectively manages stock levels, suppliers and orders, in order to streamline processes and reduce labour costs. Innovations like providing staff with handheld devices to take instant orders in a restaurant, to check sizes in a shoe store without having to leave the customers or to ring up purchases on the floor in a clothing store are also helping to increase efficiency and levels of customer service.
Electronic shelf labels (ESLs) have long been popular overseas, but they’re starting to be seen more frequently in the UK now too. A number of leading grocers have launched trials or rolled ESLs out to their estates recently, lured by the time- and cost-saving benefits of a system where prices can be changed at the click of a button.
Case Study: Morrisons
When Morrisons decided to trial replacing in-store paper price tickets with ESLs, they contacted us to discuss their requirements and the challenge of fitting an ESL to a conventional plastic data strip.
We developed a bespoke solution that would fit their shelves and hold their ESLs securely, which were then rolled out across the trial stores.
ESLs accommodate dynamic pricing and have space for more product information than paper tickets. Some ESL systems can even help to speed up the picking and packing process for online sales as they’ll provide an illuminated route for employees to follow.
However, despite their many benefits, the response from the grocery sector hasn’t been unanimous perhaps due to the prohibitive cost of implementing such a system across estates with hundreds of stores. While it seems likely that this type of technology will eventually spread across the UK, it might take some time before every store we walk into has electronic labels on the shelves.
21st century deliveries
One of the newest – and perhaps most intriguing – retail automation trends is robot delivery systems. Co-op has been spearheading the technology’s adoption in the UK, in partnership with US-based company Starship Technologies, and now offers autonomous delivery services in Greater Manchester as well as other key cities.
The main aims of delivery robots are to reduce traffic congestion and increase access to the company’s products and services. Orders are made through an app and customers can follow the progress of their robot delivery driver in real-time through an interactive map. While the service is still very much in its infancy, it’s expanding quickly and early results appear to be positive.
Delivery drones are another automated delivery service that has been gaining significant traction over the last few years. From Boots completing the first delivery of prescription medicines to Royal Mail trialling drone deliveries in the islands of Scotland, the infrastructure is slowly falling into place to create an environment for drones as a standard delivery service.
In fact, there’s currently a project underway (and backed by the UK government) to create the world’s longest automated drone ‘superhighway’ connecting the Midlands to the south-east of England. Project Skyway has brought together leading tech companies and industry experts to establish a safe path for commercial drones and provide a framework for further drone zones in the UK.
There’s a long way to go for both delivery robots and delivery drones, but what may have once seemed like science fiction is beginning to look more like reality. And it’s not inconceivable to imagine sharing the streets with fleets of robots and the skies with delivery corridors in the future.
It’s going to be fascinating to see where automation takes the retail industry next. While some of the technologies we’ve discussed in this article have run into stumbling blocks, or we’re unlikely to see widespread adoption any time soon, the potential of the ideas is undeniable. And the impact they’re having on the industry, customers and workers is going to continue to change the face of retail for years to come.