By Tridip Saha, head of business Europe, Sonata Software.
UK retail continues to endure turbulent times. Last year witnessed a litany of store closures on the high street. Traditional retailers have been criticised for not adapting to change, failing to meet customer expectations and not moving quickly enough with digital developments. Online channels are perceived as more convenient and competitive and are favoured by a growing population of shoppers.
Retailers stand on the brink and must acknowledge the challenges ahead. Otherwise, with more risk comes the threat of closure. The industry has undergone a sea change and past measures such as, cost-reduction exercises will not reverse fortunes; merely acting as sticking plasters to mask the problems for another day.
To remain competitive retailers, particularly small to mid-sized ones, need a radical rethink on how they can reach and interact with new customers while delivering a unique, memorable and ultimately, satisfying shopping experience to encourage shoppers to part with their cash. With limited sums for investment, innovative thinking and the creative use of technology could provide the stimulus for growth.
More innovation is required in the acquisition of customers. The Internet and e-Commerce have enabled millions of businesses to reach customers anywhere in the world. Understanding and adapting to their wants demands a more personalized shopping experience, and that could mean innovations such as enabling a shopper to build their own product who could customise every minute detail.
Eyewear retailers and eye health providers could let customers choose lenses and frames then order and have them delivered to any part of the world.
The business of fashion is also changing with technology. Fashion brands have been experimenting with the idea of digitally designing garments. Designs are accessible from a digital library that are downloaded and printed off which can be made by following a tutorial. The garment can be digitally manipulated, changing colour, fabric choice, accessory details etc – personalising the final product. Doing this digitally means avoiding dead stock and over-production. While this is happening with manufacturing today, imagine the potential if customers were given the power to create their own designs. Downloading a suit design, sending it to a 3D printer then wearing it by the evening is not as far-fetched as it may sound.
Shopping anytime, anywhere has been a mantra in retail for years. Artificial intelligence, analytics, robot vision will help retailers, with the deepest pockets, better predict sales, improve visibility of stock and shorten delivery times. Smaller retailers will need to be more inventive with their tech investments. AI and chatbots could curiously become the way we talk with some retailers. It is no secret that a lot of millennials prefer to type than talk and are more comfortable interacting with Companies through a screen than on the phone. Traditional ways of marketing and selling to customers are becoming increasingly difficult. People don't really answer their phones to sales calls and aren't always receptive to outbound messaging and marketing. AI and chatbots could find their way onto WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Viber on our phones and have a ‘general’ dialogue about our orders, which would be like any other conversation.
Chatbots have the potential to save huge dollars in customer support manhours by filtering out some of the lower-level issues. Sonata is working with one of its clients for implementing chatbots as the first level of customer support which can be seamlessly transferred to a real agent in case of complex requests.
In-home and delivery services will prosper to rid us of the ‘necessary but dull’ shopping that we all have to do. Commodity purchases such as, household day-to-day items i.e. toilet paper, washing up liquid, etc are already being affected by subscription businesses like Amazon or Tesco’s with auto-renewals, same-day/hour delivery and one-click ordering. Independent stores with the right kind of technology or platform could also join the party.
Cross-channel fulfilment can be challenge if you have disparate systems so a unified commerce platform enables frictionless fulfilment. With a single view of inventory customers can either do Click & Collect or order online and returns in store and you can deliver through independent stores and much more.
Digital ecosystems help businesses build connections between people, departments, organisations, partners, adjacent industries – and even the competition. Ecosystems are already helping retailers get closer to customers. An interconnected platform can gather and analyse huge amounts of data generated by an ecosystem to enable more intelligent transactions and decisions to be made i.e. customer and vendor reviews, personalised recommendations, offers and predictive supply. As a retailer you can either create your own ecosystem with someone else’s help or hop onto an existing one that boosts what you have to offer. And it might also pave the way for new and unexpected business opportunities.
Despite the doom and gloom, retailers have a fantastic opportunity to evolve through being innovative and creative with the technology on offer. Happier times lie ahead for those willing to take the risk and ensure a frictionless retailing process through digital-ready operations.