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Winning in the New Normal: How retailers can engage customers across all channels

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As India moves to a new normal post-COVID-19, consumers will move from traditional in-store shopping to click-&-collect”, Home Delivery and “Touchless In-Store Experiences”. To win in this new normal, retailers must set up engagements across all channels quickly and efficiently, building upon their existing systems without creating standalone, disjointed apps.

Winning in the New Normal: How retailers can engage customers across all channels

The need of the hour is a next-generation, mobile-based, seamless shopping experience built to engage consumers across all channels, and this is what does. is a 15-year old ERP implementation and SAP co-innovation partner, which is focused exclusively on the retail industry.

Their new technology, , is powered by Artificial Intelligence and includes features which optimize and support store operations such as smart product recommendations, customer loyalty, clienteling and more. It can be quickly and seamlessly integrated with most leading ERP solutions and applications including over 50 pre-built SAP interfaces.

A webinar, powered by SimpleRetail and hosted by was organised to educate retailers on the need for redefining customer buying channels and in-store operations, while engaging consumers across all touchpoints.

The session was moderated by , Managing Editor, IMAGES Group.

The panelists included:
, COO, Applexus Technologies
, CEO, / ,
, Director – Digital Transformation Office,

Altered Buying Behaviour

The world of retail is changing at an accelerated pace, especially considering the sudden and drastic changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, according to an EY Survey, 60 percent of buyers in India believe that the pandemic would alter the way they shop.

According to Kumar Nitesh, many new trends have been observed in customer buying behaviour in this new normal.

“When the pandemic started in March, the consumer psyche was different as compared to now. At that time, cases of COVID-19 were less, the fear was more, consumers didn’t want to step out and shop and instead ordered online. Compare it to today and the fear is less while cases have risen. When the unlocking phase started, social distancing, hygiene and health safety became priorities for consumers. As retailers complied to their demands, they started stepping out more. In fact, a lot of retailers in Tier II and III cities have reached 90 percent level of their pre-COVID business already. This goes to show that offline retail is also gaining momentum. Consumers still want to touch and feel before buying. The traditional way of doing business is still happening though retailers are innovating,” he explained.

Some of the innovations, said Nitesh, came in the form of retailers calling consumers on the phone to connect with them, showing product catalogue PDFs through email /WhatsApp, or even booking store appointments for consumers.

Nittu Thomas gave his opinion here that acceleration of digital buying will linger on as consumers have got used to the convenience of shopping from the comforts of their homes. “However, this is not to say that physical stores are not important. Consumers are coming back to the stores, but they want a different experience now – they want more touchless shopping experiences where they do not necessarily have to mingle. They are visiting stores that they know are hygienic. This means brand loyalties are changing. To keep consumers coming in, retailers ought to do more and provide them with Omnichannel experiences. Co-existence of physical and digital is emerging and will stay on for some more time to come.”

Impact of New Normal on the Way Retail Companies Operate

When asked how companies are looking to achieve top line & bottom line goals, along with customer experience in the new normal, Nitesh said, “All retailers have found a different ways to connect with the consumer – tele-calling, video-calling. The retailers who were not present online earlier have now started expanding their presence. Click-and-collect, home delivery and WhatsApp models are increasing business for retailers. In fact, as consumers want to go out more and more, retailers are pre-booking slots for click-and-collect and customers are enjoying these new options.”

He explained that traditional retailing had re-started. “’Merchandise on wheels’ is a new initiative where malls are taking stores to societies and showcasing/selling products here. Another trend which is picking up is that offline stores are also becoming dark stores for online deliveries. A lot of companies have added their inventories on their online stores. Apart from this, a lot of innovation is happening on the product side as well.”

The Opportunities Ahead for Retailers

While physical stores still have a lot of significance, the pandemic has caused a large number of consumers to shift online as they have got used to the convenience of it all. It is expected that this ease of buying to going to continue.

According to Thomas, consumers will choose their place of buying depending upon a lot of factors like the type of product, familiarity with the brand, time at disposal and perception of risk.

“Retailers will have to adopt more digital channels and these channels will have to co-exist with the physical in-store shopping. How retailers can design consumer experiences will create winners and losers. US-based retailers like Walmart, Instacart and Amazon have experienced growth in sales during the pandemic, especially in digital sales. But does this mean that only big players and online players can succeed? Absolutely not! We believe that players who can combine everything they have in the physical brick-and-mortar store and add digital channels to supplement these. This will have long-term success, but this does require them to re-imagine how they do business,” he explained.

He further stated that it was important for retailers to build consistent superior experiences on their digital channels, for example ensuring that consumer experience is consistent in both the online and offline stores. He said that retailers will have to also deliver using hyper-efficiency and that technology will play a huge role in unifying all mediums of sale.

Omnichannel the Way Ahead

According to a highly quoted report from Mckinsey, US market has achieved 10 years of e-commerce growth in just 3 months of COVID. A similar spike has been witnessed in Indian Retail segment as well where major brands have seen their online sales doubling during the COVID period.

According to Thomas, the way to continue this winning streak was not just by providing the consumer with a mobile app.

“A standalone mobile app is not the solution at all. If they do not streamline the operations, reimagine the business, then providing a mobile app to consumers is akin to putting a lipstick on a pig. The app needs to be connected to everything else that is happening in technology with their ERP, consumer data – all of this has to work together to provide that experience. To deliver the seamless consumer experience, they need to collaborate with consumers, throughout their journey. Standalone will not serve the purpose. They need to handle complaints, returns and lot more,” he said.

He further explained that bottom lines are often eroded by inefficiencies in fulfilment in-store and in inventory management when retailers go online, hence retailers need to reimagine and re-engineer their processes.

“They will have to have efficient ‘pick-pack’ operations. They must allocate work in a smart way between what they do on a regular basis to what they do in pick-pack to make sure this is optimised. They also have to look at their inventory management. As they have now put their inventory online, they need to have near real-time inventory visibility which lot of stores have not been able to reach that paradigm. They also need to make to the inventory of one store visible in other store, so that they can provide concepts like endless aisle and standalone app cannot do that. They need to use technology and data to drive incremental sales. They need to understand buying behaviour in these channels and then offer smart product recommendations. Their loyalty program needs to be adapted if they are going to go online. I am hopeful that we will see a shift in how businesses are done to adapt to some of these paradigms,” he stated.

Investing in Technology

While it is a well-established fact that technology is necessary to survive in the COVID and post COVID world, retailers also must understand the kind of investments which are most necessary to create this technology environment that will allow retailers to thrive in the next normal.

Madhav Nishtala explained, “When we say digital and people are moving online, there is going to be stickiness. With an app, retailers need to look at an end-to-end process. Today, retailers are not only competing with other retailers, but also with lots of online channels and therefore, if the orders are not fulfilled or if the fulfilment experience is not good enough, then consumers are not going to come back. We are aiming at making this fulfilment seamless. Things like supply chain efficiency, stock availability as well as the entire work process – which were internal to retailers and never exposed – are what consumers are now seeing.”

Towards this, Nishtala said, that there were apps being created for the store associate as well which gave details like where the store associate can pick up stocks, where to collect these stocks from, what inventory is expected instore, when this inventory is arriving etc.

Aside from this, technology was being used to ensure that consumers were being accorded the same level of experiences as they would have if they had physically visited a store. “Retailers are trying to ensure that despite not visiting the store, the experiences, the service level and the merchandise all remain the same for the consumer. Technology will play a huge role in providing these experiences. For example – is the app working, the app is crashing, is there a stability – all this impacts the brand and customer’s experience with the brand,” he stated.

He also explained that an integrated scalable backbone was necessary for seamless working of a brand. “While technology has been a great lever for retailers, in these times, there are new dimensions to technology adoption which most retailers have to look at. There has to be zero friction in the online buying mode because a customer is not going to blame technology if his order is not placed / not delivered online but is just going to switch to another brand. This is a new-age risk retailers need to be aware of,” he said.

Injecting Innovation in Existing Infrastructures

The question then followed is that how can retailers find opportunities and then fill gaps with the help of technology?

To this, Nishtala said, “In the last 6 months we have had lot of enquiries from retailers looking to go online. While digital was a channel for them for a long time, it has now become the sole revenue driver. Today, it is about fulfilment. Where is my order, when will it come – all of these are scenarios and inquiries that customers are now engaging in and within a matter of few days, weeks, retailers have been able to turn this around. We have technologies, where people have used existing platforms for appointments available at this point and time. Retailers have now got used to using multiple modes of payments as well as keeping track of stock in-store and in warehouses and what consumers are ordering. This is a very complex situation and that is where technology comes into play for retailers to help them deliver their promise.”

To this Thomas added, “When it comes to technology, especially, sometimes less is more. Retailers might start with WhatsApp but if they really want a connected experience they need ensure they have enough goods to fulfull whatever their catalogue promises consumers, they need to make sure they do not run out of stocks.”

“As the industry moves forward and matures, we will need fewer applications which are more tightly integrated, which talk to each other. ERPs like SAP will play a huge role in that. Our attempt with SimpleRetail has been to be tightly integrate in an application like SAP. With SAP, we have built more than interfaces to make sure that the seamless experience ensures that the retailer makes the right promise and are able to deliver with efficiency, providing a truly branded consumer experience in the long run. It also ensures that the consumer is enabled,” he further stated.

Nittu Thomas, COO Applexus Technologies, explains SimpleRetail

– Simple Retail was essentially built over the last 3 years. Our mission was that brick-and-mortar retailer would now start adopting digital and be able to fight the big e-commerce players or big stores out there. That was the goal for building the platform for retailers to have a co-existence and COVID truly accelerated that adoption for us and the platform landed into that limelight where it nearly became the need of the hour.

– Simple Retail is built with pre-integration with SAP, but it can be implemented with any ERP. It is built in a modular fashion, so retailers can pick and choose what features they want.

– There is a plug and play integration framework and it is supported on mobile phone, tablets & web based bowsers.

– The goal is to enable that branded experience of the retailer using the technology and so, we suggest a 2-week pilot. We will pick one of the retailer’s stores and do a 2-week pilot to make sure that the experience is fine-tuned to the way that retailers want to implement it for their consumers. It takes anywhere between 12-16 weeks to implement it across all the stores.