Over the past few years, there has been article after article either anticipating the demise of the brick-and-mortar store or pronouncing it dead. So many that it seems as if people are rooting for the failure of an industry that, according to a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report, supports 1 in 4 American (or 42 million) jobs and impacts the total GDP to the tune of $2.6 trillion. The gloom and doom of such headlines does nothing to help the retail industry which, between keeping up with consumer tastes and technology trends, already has a full plate. Yet the amount of work to be done in order to keep up with consumers’ pace is only going to grow. The good news is that like anyone facing business challenges today, the industry is looking to technology for help. When it starts using it is another issue.
A Less Drastic Approach
In part 1 of this series, I proposed that the industry needs a departure from “business as usual”. This is certainly not a novel idea. A Forbes article from earlier this year made it plain in its title: “Why Retailers Must Restructure in 2016”. However, while most pundits and players claim that the answer to salvation lies only in closing doors or magically finding the secret formula to using technology for in-store customer engagement, I believe that a less drastic approach could benefit us all in the long term rather than hoping for a magic solution in the short.
Consumer technology is always changing, consumers themselves don’t always know how it can best be used!
The key lies with technology but, it doesn’t have to lie in technology only as it relates to customer engagement. While important to understand in the long run, it takes more than a few big shopping seasons to figure out how customers want to use technology in-store. Considering that consumer technology is always changing, consumers themselves don’t always know how it can best be used! What I propose is that retailers embrace technology as a departure from business-as-usual in their own operations. This has two advantages:
- Internal "contamination" - Making technology part of company culture in one department which can inspire/influence integration possibilities elsewhere in the business and
- Cost savings - Although technology always involves a monetary investment, the idea of saving money (and time) by integrating technology into operations is easy to understand.
Jumping into the Tech Pool
When the National Retail Federation’s Big Show hosts an area called Launchpad — which showcases "promising retail technology startups and small, young companies that are about to make a big impact on the industry" — it’s clear that the interest in retail tech is surging. Yet technology is still a difficult beast to tame. Some of the obstacles standing in retail’s way include difficulty in knowing how to use it to enhance a customer’s shopping experience, knowing how to use it enhance operations, and getting staff accustomed to it.
These obstacles are enough to delay any type of change, but we have the opportunity to use technology behind-the-scenes, starting now. Integrating technology into operations and corporate functions represents an opportunity to jump into the shallow end of the tech pool. Solutions that support business operations already exist and can help companies create smoother workflows, monitor inventory, manage projects, and stimulate collaboration among staff. The answer to customer engagement will come, but for the sake of a healthy industry, retailers must jump in.
Laying Down an Infrastructure
Bringing technology into operations may not seem to be as revolutionary or flashy as the latest customer-facing technology but it has the power to save millions of dollars (as will be described in the 3rd article of this series). It also lays a figurative infrastructure for when consumer-facing technology is adopted because it helps to build the necessary comfort level inside the organization. This is important because bringing in new technology can be an (internal) battle and requires long-term commitment. Success in operations, where money can be saved and ideas easily disseminated, could well bolster the courage needed to integrate technology in-store.
There’s a retail revolution out there and we need to lead it and guide it.
Impactful change is never easy, but it’s time to pick up the pace. At NRF’s 2016 Big Show alone, there were 3,326 companies showcasing thousands of apps, devices and solutions. No doubt, the lack of control over something new is daunting, but that mentality is misguided, if not dangerous for growth. As Hershey’s North America President, Michele Buck, said on stage at the Big Show, “There’s a retail revolution out there and we need to lead it and guide it.” After all, tech companies breathe thinking about user experience and interfaces and they jump right in. Retail should do the same.