This article was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of The Record. Subscribe for FREE here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.
For some it’s the best price. For others it’s the broad range of products. And for most, it’s the promise of a seamless, high-quality and enjoyable service experience. Figuring out what factors attract customers to shop with, and keep coming back to, a particular brand can be challenging. However, in a world where customers are inundated with brands, products and advertising everywhere they turn, it’s vital for retailers to pinpoint exactly what their customers value most in a shopping experience and find ways to deliver it in a more engaging and compelling way than any of their competitors.
“Today’s consumers are plugged to information like never before and they want what they want, when they want it,” says Shelley Bransten, corporate vice president of Worldwide Retail and Consumer Goods Industries at Microsoft. “They choose to shop with a brand because they see value from a product or experience, and they return when they have a positive experience. Factors like delivery time, price, quality, convenience, personalisation, frictionless shopping and shared values all come into play when a customer chooses one brand over another. The secret to success? Deep understanding of what customers want at any given time. By doing this – and identifying what’s influencing customers’ product and brand choices, such as social media, targeted e-mails or adverts on TV and websites – retailers can create high-impact marketing and promotional campaigns that get people invested in the brand and its values, making them more likely to buy the products and experiences.”
While it can seem daunting, making their brands stand out from the competition is much easier than it first appears if retailers regard challenges as opportunities to put – and keep – customers at the heart of their business model. According to Bransten, there are three significant opportunities for retailers to overcome challenges related to making their brand a top choice for consumers.
First, they can analyse data to understand their customers’ needs and personal preferences better than any of their competitors – and ideally, better than the customers themselves. “Customers decide when, where and how they want to shop, and whether they want a quick and convenient – or longer and more immersive – shopping experience at that particular moment,” says Bransten. “By tracking and analysing customers’ online and in-store shopping patterns and interactions with the brand, retailers can deliver personalised and curated shopping experiences, driving loyalty and business growth.”
From data analytics to artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT), there are multiple new digital and cognitive technologies that are helping retailers to close the gap between customer expectations and what they can deliver in stores or online. Some of these intelligent technologies can be used to streamline operations and empower employees to work more efficiently across the entire retail chain – from the warehouse to the showroom to the C-suite.
“Every retail employee is a brand ambassador who can make or break your relationship with a customer,” explains Bransten. “Retailers who don’t properly equip their employees with technology that allows them to shift focus from low-value, back-office tasks, like schedule management, to delivering awesome customer experiences risk disappointing customers, who will likely seek a better experience elsewhere.”
Digital technologies can also be used to power the intelligent supply chain, ensuring that the right products are in the right places at the right times.
“The retail supply chain has to move fast to keep up with customer demands – for example, 75% of customers expect to receive an online order in two days or less,” comments Bransten. “Supply chain issues have real impact on customers’ shopping journey, and the right technology can mean the difference between a negative and a positive experience. To meet or exceed customer expectations, successful retailers use data to anticipate what their customers will need and where they’ll need it. They also evaluate and optimise every aspect of the supply chain – from raw goods to the products that end up in customers’ hands – to ensure they can deliver on these demands. This means leveraging intelligent processes to reduce costs and improve efficiency and agility.”
According to Bransten, the most successful retailers are not simply adopting out-of-the-box AI, IoT and cloud solutions from third-party providers. Instead, they are going a step further and building their own digital capabilities on top of that technology to give them the foundation they need to evolve with their customers. This is where Microsoft and its robust ecosystem of partners can help.
“Microsoft is on a mission to enable intelligent retail by empowering retailers to take control of their own digital evolution and make their businesses successful for years to come,” says Bransten. “We’re unique in the industry because of our approach to working with retailers – we don’t just sell them technology and walk away, we sit down and learn about their biggest opportunities so we can bring the right solutions to the table to help them succeed. Our solutions across cloud, big data, connected things, advanced analytics, mixed reality and artificial intelligence are helping retailers, like Starbucks and Walgreens Boots Alliance, transform their business models and exceed customer expectations.”
One retailer who is collaborating with Microsoft to reinvent the customer and employee experience is US-based food store chain The Kroger Co. The company has developed a Microsoft Azure-based Retail-as-a-Service platform that will use IoT sensors, AI and data analytics to power a connected store experience. The solution will use customer and sales data to enable Kroger to quickly create new customer experiences, enable higher levels of personalisation, enhance store associate productivity and support merchandising plans. Innovations will include a Microsoft Azure-powered video analytics solution that will help store associates identify and address out-of-stocks, as well as a pick-to-light productivity solution that will give them visual cues so they can locate items more quickly when fulfilling kerbside pick-up orders. Kroger’s EDGE Shelf system, which uses digital displays to indicate prices, promotions, and nutritional and dietary information, will also connect to Kroger’s Scan, Bag, Go solution, creating guided shopping experience for customers.
“There’s never been a more exciting time to be at the intersection of retail and technology, and there are incredible opportunities for retailers who embrace the future with a trusted technology partner,” says Bransten. “Microsoft empowers – rather than competes with – our retail customers. We work side-by-side with them and bring the brightest minds across cloud, predictive analytics, machine learning, cognitive services and more to help unlock opportunities. Our cloud platform really is the foundation to reimagine retail and create the experiences and processes to propel retailers to success for the long term.”
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