Retailers around the world have been severely impacted by COVID-19. Lockdowns and restrictions during pandemic have resulted in store closures and lost sales, and even as most economies have started to rebound, recovery is expected to be tough for retailers. They will face challenges across their value chain as they look to aggressively manage costs, boost their online presence, rethink store operations, ensure organisational readiness, rebalance their supply chain, and most importantly, reimagine customer interactions.
Retailers have also had to quickly shift their businesses to the changing environment and regulations to remain viable as economies reopen. While the choice seems daunting, the current environment presents a perfect storm where the status quo is no longer an option. Retailers need to rethink their business and value chain to survive and eventually thrive in the new normal.
Here are some of the areas retailers need to explore in retooling their businesses to tackle the challenge.
Boost online presence
Shoppers have quickly transitioned to digital and ecommerce, resulting in increased traffic and varying fulfillment needs. While many consumers were forced to start shopping online during the pandemic, this behaviour is expected to stick even after stores reopen. August was the biggest month in Australian online shopping history. According to AusPost, between March and August, more than 8.1 million households shopped online — an increase of 16 per cent on the same period last year. Retailers need to boost their digital platforms to handle this new normal. This means looking at ways to enable ecommerce systems to handle sustained increases in demand, diversify online experiences for new demographics coming online, and amplify personalisation capabilities by taking advantage of their expanding customer base and additional data flowing through digital channels.
With the increase in volumes of customer enquiries, this demand has put tremendous pressure on retailers, especially as border restrictions have impacted the availability of resources. Hence the need to have a flexible, agile and a high performance ecommerce platform, giving the ability to quickly introduce new shopping experiences in order to keep up with ever changing customer demands. Google Cloud’s Contact Center AI and Rapid Response Virtual Agent, for example, allow retailers to quickly introduce AI-powered digital assistants to their customer service workflows to handle common customer queries, automatically freeing up scarce resources to handle more complex needs. In addition, it is absolutely critical to manage peak shopping moments by doing regular capacity planning, architectural reviews, reliability testing and setting up operational war rooms to ensure that your ecommerce platforms are always available and scalable to avoid any loss of sales.
Enable data-led decision making
Data is at the center of transformation, yet access to real-time information can be challenging for retailers to obtain. It is imperative for retailers to build their retail data models allowing them to extract rich insights in order to better understand the shopping journey, predict marketing outcomes, and personalise customer experiences. This removes reliance on historical performance indicators, refocusing internal resources on growth led by data driven decision making.
Multi-cloud data warehouse solutions are a great way for retailers to build a centralised data system and leverage advanced analytics solutions without the fear of vendor lock-in. This allows the retailers to have a single view of their customer across multiple channels giving them the ability to drive personalisation, predict customer trends, anticipate demand forecasts and track inventory and customer data in real time.
Regardless of where the data resides, retailers also need the ability to have unified, single view access to updated information and the ability to extract value from their data at scale without the need for complex analytical efforts. Modern business intelligence platforms like Looker Analytics in combination with BigQuery from Google Cloud gives retailers the tools to power a multitude of data experiences giving insights to business users allowing them to make data driven decisions.
Reimagine customer interactions
A rapid shift in consumer behaviour and expectations which was already disrupting the retail sector, has now further accelerated during the pandemic. The purchase journey is no longer linear with shoppers expecting a seamless, multichannel shopping journey as they discover and buy products both online and in-store. With an eye on differentiating by providing unique experiences to their shoppers, retailers are now looking at redefining their store operations with a focus on balancing costs, creating operational efficiencies and re-engaging their customers in this new normal.
Using digital to power new in-store experiences by providing assisted shopping, click & collect / curbside pickup, in-store navigation, AI powered recommendations and personalisation, virtual showrooming and try ons are now becoming new imperatives for retailers to offer a more engaging shopping experience and to drive customer conversions and retention. Enhancing product discovery using voice, text and visual product search and using image recognition to drive shelf execution and to get real time visibility in stores is now becoming a reality.
Having agile digital platforms is helping the retailers to respond quickly to customer requirements by having a faster time to market for building new applications. Locally, Woolworths has been using Google’s Business Messages to communicate with customers during COVID-19 about store information, including stock availability in specific stores, including the aisle location. It is unlikely that consumers, having enjoyed new ways to shop and interact with brands, will return to previously held shopping habits and retailers will need to accelerate experience development to take advantage of this.
The road to recovery for retail is expected to be challenging, yet retailers also face an opportunity to rethink their digital experiences and get closer to customers than ever before. To overcome this challenge and seize the opportunity, retailers can leverage scalable technology platforms like Google Cloud to build connected customer experiences across channels and drive business growth. Prioritising digital transformation and leading with a data driven innovation strategy is now more important than ever.
Sameer Dhingra is director for retail and CPG at Google Cloud, Japan and Asia Pacific