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Retail transformation: Many roads to the same destination

During a digital roundtable event on May 5, 2021, technology leaders from diverse retail backgrounds shared their perspectives on striking a balance between digital commerce and brick & mortar (B&M) retailing in a post-pandemic world.

Moderators June Hammert, Vice President for Retail at Softtek, and Fulvio Manente, Vice President for Retail Solutions at Softtek, led conversations about the retail environment for technology leaders at drug stores, jewelry stores, custom paint franchises, fashion apparel, direct-to-consumer teledentistry, IoT retail products, gaming merchandise, brewing, and more.

This post features perspectives from the event, focusing on the online-offline balance, logistics, and, of course, the customer.

Pandemic retail: different transformation roadmaps

Most leaders agreed that e-commerce sustained retail operations during the pandemic. In fact, in 2020, an additional $900 billion was spent on online retail– about one out of every five dollars spent. Amid the frenzy of the pandemic and the need to keep pace, retail technology leaders found their digital acceleration roadmaps ‘cutting in line’ ahead of business and technology strategies that had been previously prioritized ahead of digitization.

“Our five-year plan quickly became a six-month plan,” said one VP of Technology of a women’s fashion apparel company.

Buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS) and curbside

As our participants in apparel, gaming merchandise, and others, in-store and curbside pickup kept stores semi-operational during the pandemic despite many companies having to implement this capability more quickly than desired. Still, to survive, companies found ways to enhance digital commerce, optimizing their web capability and inventory management for a seamless same-day 'click and collect' experience.

During the pandemic, BOPIS was about assuring the health and safety of the customer while maintaining a revenue stream; afterward, more retailers will keep it around for its CX and sales benefits, nurturing consumer behaviors that became ingrained during the pandemic.

From store to fulfillment-ready

In recent years, a phenomenon known as ‘the Amazon effect’ has pressured retailers to improve e-commerce delivery methods. Then last year, the pandemic increased the urgency for ‘essential’ products and upped customer expectations when shopping ‘nonessential.’ Now we’re finding that stores fancy fortifying their physical footprint with fresh fulfillment functions… phew.

Some participants at the roundtable enabled ‘buy online ship to store’ and ‘buy online deliver/ship from store.’ It was technologically demanding on logistics and web processes and required robust change management, but it offered a hygienic and flexible option during the pandemic. It also enabled modern channels for customers to find value in their brand faster.

For stores looking to add fulfillment capabilities, the retail leaders converged on a few top considerations:

  • Consulting experts and integration partners are essential.
  • If you’re lucky enough to have ninja developers, you could do it internally. But of the two internally built end-to-end order management systems discussed at the roundtables, only one worked out. The one that worked, the leader admitted, they eventually outgrew and replaced with Oracle.
  • Get everyone aligned around the same purpose (even at the store level).
  • Fail fast, figure out what best serves the business and the clientele, and know when to pivot.

For the love of stores!

At Softtek, we can give you lots of reasons to have a solid digital commerce capability; however, many technology leaders from the event truly value and love their stores.

For the gaming merchandise company at the event, its storefronts are loved by gamers for the knowledgeable employees, boutique feel, new console release events, and even the smell. While having most of the inventory in stores came in handy, still, the financial impact of the pandemic forced the company to reduce its physical footprint to the most strategic locations while simultaneously beefing up its digital commerce capabilities.

The teledentistry company started as an ecommerce-only vendor but indicated that its permanent and pop-up locations greatly boosted member experience and customer satisfaction scores. So much so that when the pandemic shuttered their B&M operations, it was like going “back to where we were 4 years ago in ecommerce.” It’s understandable how important buying experiences are when they’re built on a foundation of trust, especially for a purchase of this nature (direct-to-consumer teeth alignment and oral care). Since the pandemic, this company has warmed up to omnichannel and is now using a powerful app and website to present in person and remote treatment delivery options, stay close to members throughout the process, and collect data for continuous CX and sales improvement.

Post-pandemic retail: getting to the same destination

In the US, we’re in a sort of weird half-pandemic, half-normal time. We’re starting to see that some technologies and trends have staying power while others transform and re-transform by the day. Either way, much of what stays and what goes will be the result of how retailers modernize their technology core to get to the same destination: serving the customer and the business in the best way possible.

Do omnichannel your way

Retail may never go completely digital, but abundant evidence of small-and large-scale successes in seamless omnichannel retail suggests there’s room to blend digital with any retail strategy.

At the event, the VP of Technology for an experiential fashion apparel business enabled omnichannel commerce at speed. More impressive still is that the company did it with an internal dev team. Other industry players thought it was a crazy endeavor as it’s easy to miss steps and end up with a hollow logistics and ecommerce backend. It may be “cleaning up the mess from having to act so quickly,” but the company has had record online and offline sales in recent months, so the risk seems justified.

Many ways to know the customer

Data and analytics earned a high spot on the retail transformation shopping list for 2020 and 2021, according to our roundtable participants. A recent Treasure Data report highlights some of these data strategy priorities:

  • One shared environment to manage data, such as Salesforce, which leverages cloud capabilities to democratize access to and management of sales, products and services, and marketing data.
  • Customer preference data to anticipate demand.
  • Customer profile creation.
  • Mobile app, transaction, and social media data.

It’s All About the Data

For technology leaders at the roundtables, data will carry them through to their retail success destination:

“The data we’re most interested in is how to turn users into promoters, or at least, move them from detractors to neutral.” For the teledentistry company, its new mobile app became a key source of data and serves a dual purpose—customers share their experiences, and in turn, the business can add new value to the customer experience.

The leader for the custom paint franchise summarized why selling a custom product is difficult after rapidly enabling e-commerce capabilities: “Our biggest challenge is understanding what our customer wants from us in e-commerce, not just today, but moving forward.”

For companies that don’t leverage storefronts or websites to reach the end user, they use different services to collect data from consumers and from locations where the product is retailed: “[Brewing company] can tell you how many bottles of what SKU were sold at what bar during what week in Baltimore Maryland.” The idea is to leverage data to the extent you can.

In conclusion, the distinction data and analytics have earned in the retail space shouldn’t come as a surprise— it drives value at speed for digital transformation priorities. The saying ‘data drives experiences and experiences drive data’ holds weight. It’s about knowing what’s working, forecasting what will work, and learning from your failures.


Speaking of data, check out how Softtek helped a fashion retailer use advanced business analytics to transform operations and the CX:


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