The Unified Retailing 2019 Conference hosted by Columbus Consulting yesterday was energizing, as it’s always a fun to meet up with our customers, old colleagues and friends. The speakers were excellent, with frank and interesting conversations around how to win in today’s new retail environment. However, what really struck me throughout the event was the fact that everyone—and I mean everyone—appeared to be dealing with the same type of challenges, such as:
- How to support an environment where store sales are dropping, e-commerce is flattening, and mobile continues to grow
- How to win in an environment where there are so many store closures, but just as many store openings from digitally-native brands
- How to support the “shop anywhere” experience consumers demand
- How to keep product, experiences and services relevant
As every speaker discussed different strategies to address each issue, it became apparent over the course of the day these problems haven’t really changed over the last few years. In fact, they’ve only magnified. Despite these struggles, it only solidified my belief—and that of many others in the room—of the following:
If you want to be relevant, you must consider the customer and their preferences first in everything you do.
It’s All About the Customer
It really is all about the customer. Many retailers are too caught up with the mechanics of how to provide an omni-channel experience. In some cases, to a fault, where strategies are dictated by technology instead of the other way around.
Instead, retailers must make an effort to understand their customers and, more importantly, truly understand their preferences to overcome many of these challenges. Taking into account their preferences is vital across every major process, including:
- The overall experience and services you provide
- The product and inventory used to best serve your customers
- How you communicate with your customers
- How you organize the business to meet and measure against what your customer wants
During the conference, M&M’s Retail Mars, Inc. shared how the appointment of a Chief Experience Officer, Monika Nelson, impacted their organization in a good way. By owning the end to end customer experience, Nelson shared how this role changed how each function viewed their own responsibilities. For example, visual merchandising, which traditionally focused on stores, now considers the whole experience regardless of where or how the customer engages. Additional changes impacted the business process, how they measure results (i.e., fusing together customer and financial metrics), and much more. In the end, this new framework positively transformed how the business runs, with the customer and their preferences considered before anything else.
Breaking Through the Noise
As difficult as it is to have stock available where and when consumers want it, it’s evident that listening to what your consumers are telling you through the data is key. With all the customer data available, the industry touts artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) as a revolutionary technology expected to completely upend traditional retail processes. The thing is, I completely believe in this—it is a revolutionary technology. It is going to transform how retailers traditionally make decisions today. However, the concern voiced by various retailers at the conference falls on the inability to distinguish what is real and what is not. The AI/ML tagline makes for great headlines, and, as a result, many software vendors (old and new) are packaging older technologies as AI/ML.
How can you break through the vendor noise? And, more importantly, how can you place confidence in the data driving many of the daily decisions you make without this technology? The answer, while over simplified, is to look for proof points when and if you’re engaging with an AI/ML vendor. Modern AI/ML will allow you to attack the challenges older approaches could not – and will be able to produce the results to prove it. If you can overcome this hurdle, the possibilities of what you can do with your data, leveraging the right technology solution, is startling. Once you break through the AI vendor noise, you can start breaking through the noise in your data to see what consumers really want.
Five Final Takeaways
Enough of my takeaways. In the final session, five speakers shared their biggest advice and approaches to finding success in today’s ever-changing retail climate:
- Put the customer first (Laura Barrett, CEO, Soft Surroundings)
- Use data science to help you to create great experiences for the customer (Mark Chrystal, Chief Analytics Officer, Rue21)
- Be clear on what you are trying to deliver (Barrie Scardina, Former President North American Retail, Calvin Klein)
- You have to change, and it is fun (Greg Fancher, SVP and CIO, Express)
- Be relevant (Andrew Jennings, author & former CEO of Karstadt, Saks Fifth Avenue, Holt Renfrew, and more)
Read more about the event speakers here, and many thanks to Columbus Consulting for such a great event! It was great to reaffirm the interest in leveraging retail data to serve the customer’s needs and overcome the many challenges facing retailers today.