AI’s role in changing the outlook of the retail industry

Artificial Intelligence is defined as the study of “intelligent agents” and takes place when a device perceives its environment and takes actions that maximize its chance of success at some goal. Colloquially, the term “artificial intelligence” is applied when a machine mimics “cognitive” functions that humans associate with other human minds, such as “learning” and “problem solving.” While traditional data mining extracts data for humans to analyze, AI draws conclusions on its own. AI churns complex data to re-engineer simpler and more streamlined experiences for both retailers and customers at every touch point. AI uses predictive models and machine-learning to advance company strategy and relieve end-user efforts. Research shows that over 45% US retailers plan to use AI in next 3 years. In retail, AI arms retailers with sharper forecasting tools to make smarter business decisions. The use of algorithms increase visibility into ROI implications, translating to results like lower costs and higher sales. AI has brought positive disruption to the retail sector by improving efficiency and it is predicted that by 2020, 85% of customer interactions will be managed by AI. Based on a recent survey, 70% of US millennials and 62% of millennials in the UK say they would appreciate a brand or retailer using AI technology to show interesting products. Below are some of the ways in which AI is helping retail: Inventory effectiveness – Inaccurate inventory management is a high risk for retailers since having too much of inventory is a costly affair, while merchandise being out-of-stock leads to lost sales and customer frustration. The use of AI systems in inventory management reduces the uncertainty... read more

The Impact of Customer Analytics on Assortment

One of the most vital factors for every retailer to be successful is that they must possess the right inventory and assortment mix. Irrespective of the fact that they might be located at a busy mall or that they may have an engaging presence on social media, what matters the most is that they stock relevant products for their target customers. To add to that, online retail gives customers to chance to buy their desired product from a variety of websites, thus making assortment optimization a key priority for all retailers. The key to effective assortment optimization and achieving maximum sales is to delve into customer data and analytics to grasp useful insights. These analytics enable retailers to identify profitable growth opportunities to make the right retail decisions with the help of customer-centric merchandising. The importance of customer-centric merchandising For effective merchandising, retailers need to use customer data and buying behaviour and integrate those insights assortments and promotions. A prime aspect here is creating localized assortments as this aids retailers to determine which products to offer at which locations and through which medium. According to the EIQ Customer-Centric Merchandising and Category Management Survey, 2017, a whopping 73% of retailers attempt to customize their processes at a local or store level benefit from an increase in overall customer satisfaction. Customer-centric promotions also play an important role in assortment and customer-centric merchandising as these help retailers tap into specific customer segments after studying their buying behaviour. Metrics such as lifestyle and life stage aid retailers to place customers in specific segments and effectively design promotions for them. Thus, the buying behaviour... read more

The Evolution of Retailtainment: The Face of Retail Real Estate is Changing

With hundreds of stores and malls putting down their shutters, 2017 is certainly a bit of a setback. Whether it’s big names like JC Penney, Macy’s and Sears announcing store closures and numerous other like Payless and Rue 21 filing for bankruptcy, this situation is being coined as the great retail apocalypse of 2017. Retail may be having a meltdown at the moment but at the same time, this does not mean that retailers are going to shy away from brick and mortar. According to EKN’s research on The Changing Role of the Store – Is Your Workforce Ready, by 2020, traditional sales processes will reduce in importance in terms of what retailers expect from stores. At the top will be theme-based stores, fulfilment centers and pop-ups. With disruptive changes occurring in the retail industry, retailers and its workforce need to prepare for and embrace evolving retail formats and technologies to offer customers a unique and frictionless shopping experience. FTI Consulting’s 2016 Retail Outlook Report, shows that 63% of shoppers still prefer to touch and experience the product. Thus, a vast number of shoppers still prefer shopping in stores and online shopping cannot replace the allure of the shopping mall. So, what are retailers and developers doing to attract more shoppers to malls? Retailtainment is the answer. Retailtainment is the concept of adding entertainment and experiences to the retail mix. This trend started a while ago since malls started adding typical forms of entertainment and leisure activities, like gaming arcades, bowling alleys, and movie theatres to that attract consumers. Today, entertainment concepts have evolved beyond the movie theater and... read more

A New Buying Journey, Future of Retail and Digital Workforce

Why be wary of online when you can create a differentiated experience in the store with a high focus on personalization through technology and human intervention? Creating a personalized customer experience is not a function of implementing a new retail concept, multi-segment marketing or technology or workforce improvement alone. It requires retailers to adopt a differentiated customer experience strategy especially in their stores. In many instances, retailers don’t have the luxury of time or resources to focus on upgrading the complete end-to-end customer experience and related workforce-led assistance in the stores for infusing personalization at a customer-level. This is when technology becomes even more powerful and meaningful in the retail industry. Several retailers who are willing to experiment and innovate are experiencing the power of artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality and the Internet of Things (IoT) as these tools have emerged as a stepping stones for personalizing each step in the buying journey. Consequently, these technologies cannot operate in isolation. The role of workforce has become more important in making this journey successful. ‘The demise of the store obituary’ notwithstanding, forward looking retail stores are now moving to a highly progressive digital mode. The retail store itself is being re-imagined for today’s digital consumer. New store concepts must function as an immersive experiential center and will be a venue for collaboration and experiences that cannot be provided online. According to EKN’s research on The Changing Role of the Store – Is Your Workforce Ready, by 2020, traditional sales processes will reduce in importance in terms of what retailers expect from stores. At the top will be theme-based stores,... read more

Is Digital Transformation working in the Path-To-Purchase Journey? – Part 2

In our previous blog post, we spoke about the digital disruption of the path-to-purchase journey and how technology is affecting the way in which retailers operate, allowing customers to interact online, in-store, in-app, on-phone, in the cloud and via social media. However, the surprising fact is that in spite of the omni-channel retail experience being the strategic focus for many retailers, a large percentage of shoppers – particularly women and millennials still want an in-store experience. This is because women view shopping as a leisure activity for the purpose of entertainment and fulfillment besides need and utility, while millennial consumers want a touch-and-feel experience while they shop along with an equal affinity towards digital. EKN data shows that 75% millennials shop online and two-thirds shop in-store at least once per month. This shows that both digital and in-store affinity is prevalent among millennials. EKN’s Framework for Omni-channel Personalization data shows that 86 percent of consumers will pay up to 25 percent more for a better customer experience. But are retailers adopting the right measures to enrich the shopping experience for customers? Fortunately, the amalgamation of retail and technology has been an effective and positive one, and retailers are integrating innovative digital experiences at their physical outlets with the presence of digitized kiosks, touch screen navigation panels, interactive digital displays and other digital tools to ensure an engaging in-store experience. According to a survey carried out by Samsung, 94 percent of retailers believe the customer of the future will be driven by technology and 41 percent are already using it to implement a strategy to enhance the customer experience to... read more

Is Digital Transformation working in the Path-To-Purchase Journey? – Part 1

It is a well known fact that the emergence of online shopping has drastically changed the way we shop and besides brick and mortal stores, online shopping plays a very important role for every brand. But, is digital transformation based on what customers expect from companies or is it based on a tunnel vision of re-producing experiences that may not be relevant to the core customer base? EKN’s 2016 Profitable Omnichannel execution data indicates that only a third of retailers ‘occasionally” consider the customer perspective in devising omnichannel strategies. In today’s digitally connected age, it is a well-established fact that the internet has become an essential part of the path-to-purchase process irrespective of whether the purchase is made online or in a store. Social media is a large influencing factor for customers to make a purchase. From traditional modes of marketing and advertising on television, radio and print media, the path-to-purchase process has now undergone a digital disruption. Such a process often relies on pre-shopping activities like searching for products online, reading their reviews on blogs, forums and shopping websites and comparing them with other products available. The actual shopping transaction may be in store or via online shopping and the post-shopping activity consists of word-of-mouth recommendations, online reviews and social media posts. Thus, the process of buying has now become a merger of various online and offline activities. Shoppers can be categorized into three segments – ones who prefer shopping in physical stores, ones who prefer shopping online and ones that prefer shopping on both channels. Thus, retailers need to keep all three types of customers in mind.... read more

2016 Wrap-Up & 2017 Retail Industry Outlook

While 2016 was a pretty good year for US retail, for most retailers a repeat of 2016 growth will be not be easy replicate in 2017. After all, it is a transition year and as new economic and fiscal policies get activated, some amount of business and consumer spending uncertainty is expected. The good news is that a relatively healthy GDP over the last couple of quarters and a largely stable housing market certainly bodes well for retailers early in the year. The key for retailers is to make sure that they absorb the policy change impact in the front half of the year without inflicting too much self-damage. Registering a bumper back half of the year through faster consolidation and slick execution is a must i.e. a robust Q3 & Q4 growth plan through proper customer segmentation, new product introduction and sound execution plans. Humbly stated, my own fiscal round-up for US retail in 2016 indicates medium to strong fundamentals across a majority of retail concepts or segments. According to U.S. Census Bureau’s latest reported retail sales data total US retail sales from September 2016 through November 2016 were up 3.7 percent from the same period a year ago. The 11-month non-adjusted total retail and food services sales were up 3.1 percent from the same period a year ago. While electronic, gasoline, general merchandise and department stores showed clear signs of a sizeable slump in comp sales; other store retailers including DIY/building materials, drug, and furniture reported healthy positive sales comps when compared to 2015. As expected, within the eCommerce channel, retailers saw the biggest gains as the... read more

Improving Store Labor Standards: A Key Ingredient for Successful Store Execution

While the chorus around omnichannel and digital commerce’s growing impact and the need to transform stores becomes louder every day, retailers need to account for how these changes affect the work associates perform and the store’s labor budget. The reality is that a majority of retailers are unsure of how to upgrade labor standards and labor hours for maximizing store productivity and ensuring smooth operations. Labor standards are defined as the average amount of time it takes for store associates and managers to complete customer service, sales and operational tasks in the store. Retailers use a varied set of sales, customer service and operational labor standards for day-to-day store execution. In order to achieve consistent store execution, retailers need to ensure that all these standards are always in line with constantly evolving customer expectations, labor regulations and related store labor policies/procedures. Effective labor standards and related standard operating procedures (SOPs) in the stores include accurate labor planning for all tasks, performance evaluation, insights for operational improvements and cost minimization and above all documentation of the best methods. EKN recently conducted a survey of 63 US retailers and spoke to several softlines and hardlines retail executives to understand their viewpoint on this key retail store execution area. The general consensus is that labor standards are not well documented or updated effectively within the retail organization. In fact, nearly two-thirds of retailers (64%) update labor standards and labor hour models infrequently- range from quarterly, annual or on an ad-hoc basis. Another major business pain that retailers are experiencing is the lack of proper organizational management and consensus on issues related to... read more

Lack of a Demand-Centric Pricing Strategy is a Big Stumbling Block for Retailers

Best-in-Class retailers are responding to competitors including the likes of Amazon by undertaking price changes in close to real-time by using advanced competitive pricing analytics, price elasticity analysis and in some cases even using smart shelves for real-time dynamic pricing updates. Dynamic pricing takes a consumer’s perceived ability to pay for a product. On the other end of the spectrum, most other retailers are facing the wrath of unrelenting promotional pricing pressures and sub-optimal markdowns that are hurting operating profit and margin. Lack of optimization and dynamic approaches in pricing, promotions and markdowns gets translated into loss in operating profit, gross margin and inventory turns. Despite having the knowledge that effective pricing and promotions is the key to remain competitive, both large (turnover over $1 bn.), and mid-market retailers (turnover between $100 mn. and $1 bn.), have faced challenges in such implementations. EKN surveyed 105 softlines and hardlines retailers in November 2016 of which the larger retailers highlighted the top 2 challenges as (1) lack of actionable pricing & promotion analytics to drive profitable decisions and (2) inability to measure pricing or promotion effectiveness and financial impact. For mid-market retailers, the main challenges faced are (1) increased vendor costs and ineffective vendor negotiations and (2) inability to connect pricing, promotions and markdown approach to a company strategy. It is quite evident that large and mid-market retailers are struggling to connect the dots between pricing and promotion effectiveness and profitability. Is a more dynamic pricing approach the answer to the retailers’ problems? Retailers have tried to adapt themselves in this dynamic environment by resorting to frequent in-store price-related changes which... read more

Global Sourcing Uncertainties Continue Amid Brexit, Commodities Market Slump and Currency Fluctuations, Reports CBX Q3’16 Retail Sourcing Study

The continued uncertainty in Europe over Brexit, rising wage pressures in low cost sourcing countries, low commodity prices, weak freight transit  and major currency fluctuations are shaping a rather grim sourcing and supply chain outlook, according to CBX’s Q3 2016 retail sourcing report. In fact, the aforementioned results are in line with EKN’s own Q2 2016 retail private label sourcing study that indicates significant headwinds being felt by retailers in terms lack of speed to market, global commodity price sensitivity, high merchandise unit costs, among other business pressures. While other uncertainties across economic indicators, manufacturing activity, currencies, transit and commodities are evident, CBX’s report indicates that Brexit’s true impact will play out in the next two years. It remains to be seen how Brexit will impact retailers and their trading partners that do multi-country sourcing or deal in trading with or through UK and other European countries. The report provides useful synthesis of varied economic and supply chain indicators that can impact overall retail branding and private label private sourcing. The data has some particularly useful insights and implications for apparel, fashion, specialty and other softlines companies that source products from low-cost international countries through their own buying offices or agents. Nearly 1 in 2 retailers (45%) source through their own international operations or buying agents like Li & Fung1. Among the top 8 global sourcing impact points covered in CBX’s report, most do not indicate a positive Q2 performance. Moreover the outlook towards forward looking macro-economic measures (i.e. infrastructure, labor etc.), manufacturing indices and freight demand scenarios do not seem that positive either, except for a handful of... read more