Retail’s digital future: a process not a project

AS with many other enterprises today, the retail sector is undergoing something of a digital transformation. This was brought on partly by the emergence of so-called disruptive technologies, but also by means of a series of step changes affecting the sector: click-and-collect, e-commerce, next-day-deliveries, Amazon in the West, Rakuten in Japan and beyond – the list is a long one.

But any commercial concern in retail which has more than, say, a dozen stores (plus complementary e-commerce facilities), cannot hope to undertake a digital transformation strategy overnight and expect to get things right. The experience of Jaeger, for instance, is a case in point – successful retailers in every other sense are going to the wall while in mid-digital transformation.

As a basic step, larger businesses would do well to form a taskforce of informed C-level staff and outside consultants already versed in previous transformative processes. But this article is not meant to be a guide to digital transformation in retail. Rather it hopes to point out some of the salient points a retail business should consider as the future of tech shifts and alters.

Start to see Big Data’s Possibilities

Something of a buzz-phrase of the 2015-2016 period, the actual meaning of big data for retail is highly specific.

As retail processes digitize, each will be garnering digital goodness – reams of data that can empower and inform: from a single EPOS, from portals into trans-continental logistics partners’ systems, and of course, from every electronic system in between.

The stumbling block for the effective use of big data is another buzz-phrase, one of data “silos”. In short, all gathered data needs to be amalgamated and normalized. Only when it is clean (in data terms, “clean” means data with no rogue entries which might cause anomalies) and process-ready can data be properly leveraged.

The Internet of Things Comes to Retail

The opportunities for business in the new era of the IoT are as exciting as they are many. By utilizing this new wave of technology, organizations can use connected devices to drive value change across the enterprise and create focus on the way an ever-increasing amount of functions are running on the new networks.

Beacons in-store (or in-mall, or in a retail zone, depending on the infrastructure available) can combine with individual RFID tags on every single product, on multiple continents. For a retailer with potentially thousands of ever-changing SKUs, the math betrays the potential flood of data.

The IoT in the retail space is only going to grow: already we have seen facial recognition technologies in-store, plus the entire supply chain can be – if not automated – at least equipped with technology at key points: warehouse entrances, loading bays, distribution depots and so on.

The Changing Back Office

The role of the back office has changed from managing its own basic functions to acting as the central data repository, the so-called “single point of truth” for the different data feeds that inform a business. It is a hub, enabling all cross-functional teams in the organization.

Legacy ERP systems may only have been installed in order to cope with so-called back office requirements: human resources, finances, basic logistics etc. In today’s omnichannel retail environment, that will not be enough.

Put simply, failing to garner and effectively use the new, single data lake as a means of organizational change means that some retailers are missing out. As the amount of data grows, businesses have begun to analyze their meta-data from right across retail, using data to feed into decision-making, or even predict industry movements and trends. Specialist data analysis can certainly bring value, but it’s also crucial that as a bare minimum, retailers are on top of their own broad-sweep data, and able to put it to use themselves.

Changing Structures to Improve Intelligence

Without a cohesive, well-integrated digital foundation, the modern retail enterprise will struggle to get the disparate parts of the business working separately in their own rights, as well as getting those parts to work in concord with one another. Connecting data sources into a single stream of intelligence is a critical task for retail enterprises moving forward.

But even with the latest tech in place, the task of pulling together all data is not an easy one. Purpose-built applications for POS, CRM, RFID, supply chain management, warehouse management and dozens of others power a typical retail operation. The task of improving intelligence begins in the hard work of navigating diverse system architectures, API calls and data mapping so that data can be correlated and connected across systems. Only then can retailers truly see impacts of a promotion, project new product launch details or allow customers to benefit from transparency in the supply chain. What is created in the end, however, is not just a well-integrated intelligent enterprise but also a newly created competitive advantage.  Many early adopters are leveraging the operational investment in integrated systems to add to their brand value and begin conversations with their shoppers about issues that matter to them the most.  For some it’s sustainability, for others it’s the pursuit of exclusivity in fashion but for all it is a new way to fuel customer loyalty.

Retail is very much trend-led, so real-time data feeding accurate business intelligence algorithms is essential to keep moving in today’s retail industry.

Moving to Omnichannel Models

Today’s consumers present an increasing number of demands as their expectations rise, and demands for convenience become louder. As purchasers ourselves, we think nothing of being able to divide up a complex order between home delivery, in-store pickup, timed delivery at the office, delivery to a depot or local locker.

Then, we expect to be able to return several items, from different orders, also via the same range of channels.

The back-end systems needed to cope with this new level of expected convenience are highly complex and need to interface with every area of the retail business: stock level adjustments, logistics management, individual customer preference updates, marketing policy – the list touches every aspect of retail.

Developing Partnerships, and Getting Advice

The value of advice from other retail professionals and the consultants who have accrued significant experience in the industry over the years is priceless.

Joining retail networking groups either physically or online can be highly effective; after all, there is probably someone out there who has asked the questions you want answering, and more than likely, someone who has been where you are now.

By leveraging insightful consultancy, the pitfalls of a digital transformation can be, if not entirely mitigated, then at least minimized. It pays to talk, ask and plan.

And finally…

Even if not considering a full-on digital transformation (it pays to road-test any technology solution on a smaller scale), the software and hardware possibilities are many.

Good suppliers will offer important consultation processes which are of paramount importance to any retailer wishing to transform at any scale. Integration with legacy systems is as important as the choice of new systems, and any supplier of modern retail business software (and supporting hardware) should be able to advise you appropriately.

To help modern retail enterprises look to a tech-driven future, there are some leading-edge suppliers out there which we at Tech Wire Asia think should be considered. Here are just four of the leaders in APAC, and beyond.

RETAIL PRO

Retail Pro International (RPI) is a global leader in retail management software that is recognized world-wide for rich functionality, multi-national capabilities, and unparalleled flexibility. For 30 years, RPI has innovated retail software solutions to help retailers optimize business operations and have more time to focus on what really matters – cultivating customer engagement and capitalizing on retail’s trends.

Retail Pro software solutions are the flexible retail management tools that power unified commerce strategy for retailers everywhere. With full POS, replenishment, inventory, promotions, and customer management functionalities available on any mobile or desktop Android, iOS, and Windows device, it molds to your unique business operations and enables you to increase efficiency on the sales floor and in your back office – everywhere in the world.

Specialty retail segments each have their particular challenges, but Retail Pro’s solutions are highly configurable to be able to cover the bases, allowing each operation to work in its own ways – and with its own legacy software, if necessary.

Retail Pro also offers a market-leading level of integration with retail’s stalwart ERP system of choice, SAP. They are particularly qualified to work with the German supplier’s offerings, which are respected and used throughout the world as the backbone of many areas of the enterprise. Integrations also exist to other ERP, accounting and other business-critical software.

The configurable reporting and business intelligence capability of Retail Pro software allows a highly granular view into the business for all diverse operational groups. Reports are available at the tap of an iPad screen, ranging from the performance of a single store (or even store assistant) right up to seeing strategic insights used at boardroom level.

Clever retailers leverage Retail Pro solutions to guide their operations: by gathering rich information from inventory performance to customer preferences, the progressive retailer harnesses technology to create a truly impactful position for itself. It’s the power of the software make Retail Pro’s solutions class-leading.

RELEX

The US-based company has offices in Europe and the US, and its reach is wide, with customers on every continent bar Antarctica. It supplies a unified retail process management system, based on a range of software which covers most aspects of large retail.

Its products can drive efficiencies in supply chain management, staffing, and stock management. It specializes in supplying solutions to retailers of products with limited shelf-life, such as beverages and foodstuffs.

Relex has a range of software which can improve cost levels and efficiencies right across the retail process, from warehousing, staff management, ordering, logistics, procurement and, of course, shelf-life optimization of perishable goods.

Shop-floors can be planned and optimized with the company’s planogram software, allowing different A/B testing of displays to be carried out by retailers, before rolling out the success stories across a larger group.

Configuration is highly granular, allowing a wide range of staff input and editing of data – this means managerial staff can be granted more privileges to alter, add or delete precious data from repositories than, say, shop-floor staff.

At the back office level, the business intelligence facilities allow the highest levels of data aggregation for the purposes of business intelligence gathering.

As food waste, in particular, becomes a matter of public concern, suppliers such as Relex are in a powerful position to optimize on the savings and efficiencies which technology can bring about.

Mi9

Like Relex, Mi9 has its headquarters in the US, but its solutions are successfully installed right across the globe in retail businesses of all shapes and sizes, from one-store outlets to cross-continental retail and supply chains.

As well as order management, omnichannel integration with e-commerce, point-of-sale capabilities and merchandise management, there is a full raft of business intelligence algorithms which, according to Mi9, can produce “a-ha” moments for C-level staff.

Mi9 solutions can identify and segment customers by psychographic and social data, as well as more traditional buying patterns, demographics and geographic influences. This minute examination of buying patterns can give retailers real insight into what is trending, what is being rejected and what could do better – allowing a constant tweaking of offerings.

The company’s single-point-of-truth allows more efficient stock reallocation and movements, and the data pool model means there are no data silos from different systems not integrating with one another, holding back vital data from decision-makers.

Designed especially for the retailer (as opposed to the wholesaler) Mi9 also offers payment processing services in-store, plus software features which cover a range of different retail: sporting goods to clothing and jewelry.

VEND

Vend’s POS systems look the business – they can be iPad or iPhone-based and all data is stored in the cloud. The obvious caveat is that an Internet connection must always be available. Or so you would think! Even if the Internet connection goes down, though, the systems continue to work, and synchronize seamlessly on reconnection.

The systems allow product management and stock control facilities, and are combined with high-end reporting power which allows data to be drawn out by management level staff, in order to discern trends that will help grow the business.

Being cloud-based, there is little hardware to install (in-store PCs can be equipped with standard POS hardware if desired), and the solution is highly scalable according to the rapid changes in the retail market which affect every retailer today.

As the global nature of business now dictates more peak demand cycles (Black Friday, Singles’ Day, Thanksgiving, Diwali, Ramadan, Christmas, Valentine’s etc.) it’s comforting to know that someone else has to cope with the rapid scaling of software availability.

Cloud implementations of retail software also have the added bonus of not needing user intervention to update systems – with no accompanying downtime – as the same, single system is always available and is always up to date and secure.