03 Jun 2020

The Future of Retail: 2020

Ian Pattison, Google Cloud
The Future of Retail: 2020

Let’s be clear from the outset: the retail industry was going through a significant shift towards new business models before Covid-19, and it will continue to do so afterwards.  Yes, the current global pandemic is accelerating those changes, but it was happening anyway.  Many retailers have been taking steps to transform their businesses, enter new markets and adopt new enabling technologies over the last few years.  Covid-19 means that they now need to do that more quickly.

What does the future of retail look like?

Consumers are still looking for value.  Some are looking for value in pricing, others for experience.  The shift of retail away from the ideal of ‘all things to all people’, towards the extremes of value price and experience, will continue.  Retailers need to focus on either value or experience, or diversify to cover both separately.  Retailers who try to be all things to all people will struggle to succeed.

For experience-focused retailers, it may currently be difficult to provide a good level of in-store customer service, so it is imperative to focus on the touch points that do exist - web, mobile, chat and phone.  Machine learning (ML) and other artificial intelligence (AI) technologies can help to streamline these channels, for example by helping to understand customers’ precise requirements in a call centre setting, and guiding agents to the right answer.

For value-focused retailers, those same AI technologies can help to optimise pricing, build an efficient routing of delivery vehicles, and ensure the correct levels of stock in the right place,  thereby reducing costs.

How can retailers deliver great customer experience?

Anything which makes shopping easier for consumers, which removes friction and pain points and gives them a more pleasant experience, has the potential to be a game-changer.  If retailers can bring together data, for example, on recipes, trends, and preferences, then they can serve their customers by giving them the things they want, before they’ve even realised they want them.

For instance, imagine telling your shopping app that you want to cook Indian food at the weekend, and based on your previous choices it ships all the right ingredients at just the right time.  Or getting a dress for a party based on the latest fashion trends and the existing contents of your wardrobe, delivered the day before, with perfect fit.

Retailers who can combine the latest tech with a customer-friendly and hyper-personalised approach to deliver innovative service at exactly the right time will be the ones who benefit.

Retail everywhere

The ongoing shift away from fixed computers towards mobile and wearables will have an impact on both consumers and employees based in stores and warehouses.

Connecting with customers is increasingly moving from traditional advertising channels, to mobile, with social media and influencers' YouTube channels becoming a significant part of ‘brand reach’.

For consumers, ubiquitous, always-on technology will allow them to opt in to hyper-personalised offers, delivered when they are in store, to enable them to get the most from their relationship with their favourite retailers.

For employees, having accurate and up-to-date information will help them to give great service to their customers and do their jobs more effectively, thereby improving staff morale.

How can retailers prepare for a post-Covid world?

Terms like omni-channel and multi-channel reflect the barriers that exist in retail today, and those barriers are largely within the retailer themselves.  Online retailing started as a separate entity from bricks-and-mortar stores, and to a large extent those siloes still exist.

Retailers wanting to emerge strongly from the Covid-19 period should think of the customer experience as a series of touchpoints, and it should not matter which channel is being used at that time.  The technology exists to bring all of the data and customer interactions together from across a retail organisation; often it is organisational and cultural constraints that inhibit this. 

Now, more than any other time, we need to discard old ways of thinking.

Ultimately, customers will benefit when they can use a mobile app, speak to a home device, email a request, or go into a store, and pick up their customer journey where they left off, seamlessly.

The best thing that retailers can do for the future is to serve their customers in the way the customers want to be served.

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