Till about a decade ago, technology was considered unobtrusive, a “back office thing” without a name or an identity. Consumers were shopping the old-fashioned way, wearing out their shoes instead of their keypads. Today, buzzwords like ‘consumer centric’ and ‘Omni-channel’ have raised their expectations and they now seek experiences rather than just delightful products and services.
The Evolution of Technology
Technology has transcended from an aspiration to an expectation and has wedged itself securely between consumer and experience to create an everyday interface. A plethora of experiences have migrated online and with them, consumers.
From a service extension, technology has evolved to a lifeline for businesses. Retail is no stranger to the tech-revolution; today, it has technology woven into its DNA. In this landscape, the role of the Technology Leader in creating seamless consumer journeys between the online and offline realms is invaluable. If technology is the face of retail, the CIO is its brain. While the rapid changing pace of technology has caused seismic shifts in shopping habits, its tremors have ripped apart the definition of the Retail Technology Leader.
Images Retail spoke with Chief Information Officers across the country to understand how their roles have changed over the last few years and the tech priorities from 2016-18.
The Changing Role of the CIO: From Business Enabler to Business Stakeholder
Gone are the days when impressive IT or Engineering degrees staked claim to a CIO’s fame. With most companies fusing their IT strategy with business strategy, today’s Head of Technology is getting down to business and is expected to use technology to drive business strategies and fulfil the corporate vision. The tech credentials are not even a mandate anymore. Given the consumer demand for digital transformation, it is important for Technology Heads to develop the mindset of Digital Enabler and Growth Hacker in the next couple of years.
“Heads of Technologies now need to have a deeper understanding of business and its challenges to drive sales and margin growth, without ignoring the customer intimacy needed to stay aligned with their expectations from retailers as a service provider,” observes Head IT Strategy and Governance, Arvind Ltd, Abel A Correa.
The age of web and mobile technology has created highly tech savvy customers who look for a seamless shopping experience across multiple channels. Consumers use technology in various ways before they shop and during their time in the store – they search for online coupons, use mobile devices to check prices, research products, make shopping lists and read product reviews. From being present across channels, the focus now is to provide a unified experience across channels.
Customers will naturally gravitate towards retailers that can combine a competitive shopping experience with high customer satisfaction.
With lines getting blurred between service offerings, it is important for retailers to be creative and innovative to provide a relevant and unique differentiator.
The Three Big Technology Challenges Retailers Will Face: Technology Solutions Must Evolve to Business Solutions
Technology is becoming more agile and responsive. It is relevant to almost every business function and process of an organization today, and the impact of this change on business is significant and challenging. A Technology leader is expected to convert this challenge into opportunity and while they are rising up to the task, some lacunae between service and delivery are expected.
While customer retention, a seamless Omni-channel experience and creating differentiation in products and services topped the list, there were others. Some of it had to do with a fast changing pace, while others involved a change of mindset. When we asked CIOs on what they believed would be the three key challenges that retail would face from a technology point of view, we received myriad answers.
Next Page: Three Key Themes
1. Managing Customers & Their Changing Expectations:
From creating a one view of the customer and one view for the customer to customisation and personalisation for customers. From drawing insights from data to retaining consumers as the price war has driven away margins and loyalty. From creating a seamless shopping experience to managing rapidly changing consumer preferences, CIOs will be on their toes to identify the right platform or products, keeping in mind the high degree of obsolescence.
On the subject of providing differentiated and unique personalised experiences, Customer Care Associate & VP, Shoppers Stop, Anil Shankar says, “The need is for in-store digitization to match the other channels and to improve the interaction of frontend association with customers.”
2. Data, Data Analytics & Data Protection:
With the ability to collect large amounts of data comes the responsibility of managing that data, making sense of that data to be able to impact business decisions as well as protection of that data. Indresh Pradhan believes that the big challenge will be “making sense of the data.”
3. Skilling & Re-Skilling of Workforce:
Technology providers will have to change their positioning from providing technology solutions to business solutions. This shift in positioning will mandate a shift in mindset, both with the IT teams as well as across management. This will necessitate investments in re-skilling of existing teams, as well as investments in training and development of both IT personnel.
NEXT PAGE: TECH PRIORITIES FROM 2016 – 2018
Priority 1: Build A Single Customer Experience Across Channels
Today’s customers want a seamless shopping experience across multiple channels. Omnichannel fuels this shift, but the current technologies used by each channel do not talk to each other smoothly. This puts the onus on the retailers.
“In order to provide a seamless experience for the customer, it is important to build a consistent experience across all channels to make it simpler for the customer who does not think channels, but just thinks experience”, says Vikram Idnani.
According to Vice President – Information Technology, Travel Food Services, Sandeep Kothari, the answer lies in Omni-channel Journey Orchestration.
“Omni-channel, sooner than later will become a hygiene factor for all retailers”, confirms Sr. V.P. IT & Supply Chain, Hypercity Retail India, Yakeen Gazi. “But integrating existing legacy fail-safe systems with online technology requiring 100 per cent connectivity and stability will be the main challenge in reaching the goal.”
For Omnichannel to become a reality, agile software solutions are a must. Unfortunately, the industry is yet to witness a proven comprehensive solution.
Abel A. Correa of Arvind Ltd. expresses a different point of view. “The game changer will be the adoption of Cloud based deployment strategy for delivering IT in a cost effective manner as retail business will continue to be hard pressed for margins and returns on capital employed.The other major game changing touch point will be Mobile enabled software”.
Priority 2: Build/Enhance Mobile Strategy
Mobile first is the new mantra. It is a must-have for the Millennials, a customer segment which cannot be ignored for business sustenance and growth in the coming years. In today’s competitive marketplace, mobile strategies help retailers remain relevant to modern consumers. “In fact, it’s been here for quite some time, but retailers have been slow to catch on to consumer habits and behaviours”, points out Sunil Nair.
On the other hand, CTO Globus Stores, Pooraan Jaiswal, believes that mobile technology is still new and limited, but is investing in it as it offers tremendous cost and space savings and increases productivity with collaboration in real-time.
With mobile technology becoming universal, how can retailers drive disruption and create a value differentiator? According to Sandeep Kothari, “The firms that can best capture mobile moments will have a great advantage over their competitors, and the ability to engage customers or employees in their mobile moments depends on the organisation’s ability to innovate, build, and deploy”. Mobile technology is an equally valuable tool to improve employee engagement, performance and productivity.
Head IT & SCM, Bestseller, Ranjan Sharma confirms its importance. “We intend to bring the entire life of an employee to this app to execute his day to day transactions and manage his issues and problems”.
Liberty Shoes uses the mobile strategy to exhibit significant data to reach their widespread sales work force and employees.
Priority 3: Data Security & Fraud Protection
The increasing use of digital technology, social media and the adoption of technology without a full understanding of its boundaries is creating a playground for cyber criminals. Data theft is a misfortune that plagues even offline retailers. The threats amplify with the addition and integration of an online channel. As a preventive measure, VP & Head IT, Shop CJ Network Uzwal Kumar Chatterjee advises, “Insulate the organisation from Cyber-attacks and provide a robust and resilient IT security setup.”
Priority 4: Big Data Strategy: Storage & Analysis
In today’s turbulent world of ever-changing customer expectations, big data can help retailers find new ways of remaining relevant and competitive. Sunil Nair says, “Big Data solutions can facilitate predictive analysis on customer data collected from a wider range of sources such as POS, online transactions, social media, loyalty programs and more. This can help retailers more accurately identify shopping behaviour of customers, which in turn can be used to deliver highly targeted, location-based services almost in real time.”
While data storage and analytics will play a pivotal role in understanding the consumer, Abel A. Correa feels that Indian retailers would first have to evolve on the sanity of current Master data layers to be able to move from descriptive to prescriptive to predictive analysis. This underscores the necessity of strong Master data management processes.
Priority 5: Building Alignment of IT With Other Functions
In this day and age where technology is ingrained in every breath we take, IT has to be Enabler, Enhancer, and Experiential for its stakeholders and drive sales, operational excellence and customer intimacy. Competitive advantage is what all businesses need and the same can be achieved thru IT automation and integration at all levels across the company. It is therefore important for the IT team to understand the business better and delve deeper into the functions and goals of different departments.
Priority 6: Integration Methodologies to Manage Co-Existence of Multiple, Disparate Systems Used in Retail
The technology landscape is a complex, fragmented mix across channels with every retailer having built individual systems. This has resulted in a patchwork of antiquated solutions prone to errors. As retail organizations grow, the complexity of systems increases. Having systems that integrate closely with each other makes it possible to view information end-to-end as well as maintain a single source of truth.
Today, the availability of new integration methodologies and national level connectivity can move retailers up the value chain on data flow, from being End of Day routine to Real Time. This will allow them to engage the customer with highly relevant and accurate information while provide the latter with a glitch-free unified experience.
On the other hand, adopting new mobile based and cloud based solutions and integrating the same with existing systems could be the other game changer for the retail industry.
Priority 7: Up-Skilling People & Getting Organisations Digitally Savvy
However sophisticated or modern technology may be, it is worthless if it is implemented with errors. A retailer cannot be digitally enabled if its employees fumble with the nuances involved in engaging with the customer to deliver a product or service. The ever changing nature of digital has also redefined the profile of people.
Head – Technology, Infiniti Retail Limited, Ranjit Satyanath observes, “Earlier it was the super specialists. Now with the need to move fast, all-rounders are in great demand. Retailers must continually upgrade customer service skills to be able to leverage the digital prowess which will enable them to provide the speed, quality and richness of experience that customers expect today. It may be more cost effective to mass up-skill the current generation using modern training tools like online portals, mobile apps, games and other interfaces as they are comfortable with digital interactions.”
Priority 8: Embrace Cloud & Cloud Services
Depending on the size and maturity of the organisation, the cost effectiveness of Cloud makes it a boon for retailers who would like to ‘Try Fast, Fail Fast and Learn Fast’. New business start-ups are already operating out of the Cloud, enabling them with competitive advantage against the traditional setups.
Priority 9: Reducing Costs
It is encouraging to note that cost reduction features as the last priority. Today, retailers need more integrated and reliable strategies and solutions in order to remain competitive, and optimizing cost of operation is key to enjoying this advantage. Information technology as a domain, with its tools for modern retailing can improve retailer, supplier, and customer activities and experiences and provide an opportunity for retailers to control their operations resulting in cost optimization.
Priority 10: The Internet of Things
The Internet of Things (IoT) is regarded as a major driver of the third Industrial Revolution. IoT will be a disruptive force in retail operations and companies devising an IoT strategy should put one question at the forefront: Do you want to be a disrupter or the disrupted?