Bits & Pieces

Posted by Mike Butler on February 13, 2019

Everything is connected to everything else. You can almost hear the sound of one hand clapping behind that expression, but this interconnectedness business is serious business in a retail context.

Retail experts have been talking about the need for joined-up experiences for some time now. The new connectivity was one of the biggest themes at this year’s NRF.

The importance of seamless connection between different customer experiences, different platforms; between the different technologies that facilitate behind the scenes and interface with the consumer. The connections between backroom and front of house and, increasingly, how machines can be married with humans to the benefit of all – these were all big talking points.

Data is the fulcrum about which all these elements balance.

The deluge of data produced by just about everything with an electronic pulse, offers a wealth of information and intelligence just waiting to be exploited. First it has to be harnessed, processed and deployed. That’s no mean feat. Even though the technology required to make use of the torrent of information already exists, it was clear from sitting in the audience listening to speakers across the length and breadth of retail, that few are doing so successfully.

Of course, if it were easy everyone would be doing it. Those that are doing it well see significant returns in terms of efficiency gains, profitability, improved customer satisfaction and happier, more productive staff.

Every bit of data plays its part. From purchase history to preferences, from browsing patterns and dwell time, to population movements, behavioural change and the weather. Data is the raw material that connects every aspect of the business. Customers, staff, suppliers, retailers and tech partners. Harvesting it and joining the dots, the yottabytes of information, to get a unified view is the sweet spot.

Artificial intelligence comes into its own in precisely this sort of processing: dealing with huge amounts of data from multiple sources. Machine processing at machine speed yields a unified view that subsequently results in insights that impact across the business. An AI analysis of the weather and historical soil behaviour data, for example, enables it to predict growing conditions and therefore the yield of crops. That information disseminated through the supply chain, helps everyone to be more efficient from farmers to shelf stackers.

Shoppers offer up vast amounts of information about themselves with every interaction. Applying the unified view approach to this data enables retailers to move from customer-centric to customer-obsessed. That is taking all the little bits of information – the billions of bytes – and applying AI and deep learning. And that should result in a genuinely personalised and contextualised customer experience and proactive marketing the customer welcomes.

People want their experience of retail to be seamless and enjoyable regardless of the touchpoint. They welcome retailers taking a unified view of them if it means frictionless experience where they are treated as known – and loved – quantities.

People also refers to staff. Humans are hardwired to please and when technology enables them to provide superb service everyone wins.

Surveillance, historically used for anti-theft, has been shown to be a powerful and effective weapon in real time marketing. Offers can be delivered to the customer’s phone based on the aisle they’re in, their purchase history and their browsing pattern. But importantly, the same tech applied to task management software enables retailers to anticipate peaks and troughs. Like when there will be a rush for the checkout based on footfall, traffic and average dwell times so that staff can be deployed before anyone gets fed up waiting to pay.

Technology facilitates great customer experience before, during and after purchase, but there’s more to be done with yoking mobile phones to the work. China is leading the way with interoperability, partly because the vast majority of online transactions are via mobile, while the UK and US lag behind. As more and more retailers look at mobile-optimised and mobile-lead strategies, more apps will be developed that are consumer-led rather than business-led.

There’s a backroom angle too, of course. RFID has been enjoying something of a renaissance as it helps to simplify click and collect logistics, enabling real-time view of instore inventory and seeking to remove warehousing and transport from the click and collect equation.

Harnessing all that technology has to offer enables retailers to recognise trends and behaviour patterns early, to anticipate behaviour and demand and to respond proactively. That means better, more effective and more profitable supply chain management, inventory control, stock availability and ultimately better customer service. Many of these elements have been taking shape during the last decade, but this year promises to be the time it all comes together.

We will be exploring these issues in Retail Tomorrow on March 7thand 8th. Can’t wait to hear what you think about joining the dots in 2019.