Competition in retail has always been intense. Surviving, let alone thriving, requires heavy technology spending.
In the modern retail era, customers have all the power. Phones and digital devices serve as entry points into shopping experiences. At the click of a button, consumers have access to unlimited product assortments, price transparency, inventory availability, and crowdsourced ratings on product quality and customer service. This boom in e-commerce presents consumers with an immense amount of options that are no longer restricted by geographical location, causing a spike in competition for every business.
With this power shift to consumers, retailers are looking to keep up with the accelerating pace of technological change impacting their business models. Investments in unified commerce platforms, machine learning forecasting and supply chain visibility are exploding. However, these investments are reactive — i.e., necessary to keep up with the new consumer-driven retail business model. So, how can retailers be proactive and get ahead of consumers to make smart investments that impact customer satisfaction?
Start by Leveraging the Cloud
Moving to modern, cloud-native platforms will keep retailers current by providing them with real-time data to drive decision making. Housing information in the cloud helps businesses avoid using their limited time and resources maintaining outdated legacy systems. Leveraging network data, whether it's supplier, customer or social media data, will create a complete and meaningful basis for reporting and analytics. By keeping all data in a cloud accessible from anywhere, retailers gain a holistic view of operations and ensure all departments are aligned by working from the same set of information.
Realize AI is Here to Stay
Retailers that invest in modern cloud platforms and connected intelligence are also primed to reap the benefits of artificial intelligence (AI). This technology allows companies to glean actionable insights from unstructured data, and has the potential to automate many of the routine business processes prone to human error. AI can handle processes like counting inventory, allowing retailers to avoid ordering more than they need and helping them accurately keep track of items currently in stock. It can also optimize decision making by incorporating all available attributes that are created, shared and collected, resulting in better, localized assortments; the right level of inventory at the right fulfillment locations; and the ability to meet demanding delivery times. This is an acknowledged destination on today’s retail road map.
Let Technology Maximize Human Potential
What's less obvious and less discussed is perhaps the biggest opportunity lying in a retailer’s future: the power of AI to unleash human potential. It's obvious that changes in technology impact business models, but what about the nature of employee tasks when business models change so drastically? When AI reduces errors, facilitates successful transactions, and improves execution, it frees in-store associates of the mundane work normally associated with “entry level” jobs. More of their time can and will be devoted to higher-value and enriching tasks aimed at bettering customer engagement. For example, by automating tasks like counting inventory and reordering standard supplies, employees can instead focus on improving the shopping experience and offering greater customer service with personalized recommendations and treatment. This increase in personal interaction will keep both customers and employees happy, improving sales in the long run.
Yes, consumers have the power, but every employee is also a consumer, exposed to the same experiences and inclinations. There's parity of position, equivalence and relatability in these employee-customer interactions that's lacking digitally. Online convenience, subscription deliveries and chatbots have their role, but deep down customers and employees still value the human connection present at the heart of shopping.
Even when convenience channels are streamlined and commodified, customers will still desire the thrill of treasure hunting that shopping brings. There's an opportunity here for retailers to continue to surprise and delight their customers via personable employees. The authentic, intimate relationship that customers and retailers seek with each other relies upon the meaningful and rewarding engagements between shoppers and employees. The face of the brand, the ambassador of everything the brand represents, is engaging with your customer in-store, on the phone, or hanging out in the same social networks.
As power continues to shift from retailers to consumers, businesses must adapt to meet shopper demands and remain competitive. The right technology allows retailers to gain insights from their data to enhance the in-store experience and empower employees to provide better service. Invest in technology that unleashes the human potential in your organization.
Matt Simonsen is the director of retail strategy at Infor, a global enterprise software company.
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