Shelley Bransten is transforming retail and beyond

The corporate vice president of Retail and Consumer Goods at Microsoft is making it her mission to address retailers’ most important growth opportunities. Here she shares how she’ll do this in the months to come

Shelley Bransten is transforming retail and beyond

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. 

Many congratulations on your new role at Microsoft. What were your reasons for joining the company and how have you found the experience so far?

Microsoft is an amazing company and I joined at an amazing time. We’re doing incredible things with retailers around the world, helping them unlock unprecedented opportunities, put their customers at the heart of everything they do and really reimagine what retail means for them going forward. I’m in awe of this company – the culture, the scale, the opportunities. It’s an amazing place to be.

From a personal standpoint, when I joined Microsoft, I was really running toward something awesome rather than running away from something else. I’m determined to be a ‘learn it all’ rather than a ‘know it all’, and the Microsoft culture really supports that. A big part of why I love this role is the people. I believe in building organisations around goals, not tasks, and I love being surrounded by people who are off-the-charts smart, focused and as customer-obsessed as I am. And that’s what I get here.

Tell us about your professional background – how long have you been involved in the world of retail? 

I really grew up in retail – as a kid I spent my weekends with my dad stocking coffee cans in local grocery stores as part of his business. And after stints at several other retailers, I spent 16 years at Gap, Inc. running customer relationship management and digital marketing for all its brands. So, even though I’ve been in technology for a few years prior to coming to Microsoft, (I launched business solutions that addressed challenges facing the retail industry as senior vice president of retail at Salesforce) I’m a retailer at heart. 

What will be your key focus areas for the coming year and beyond?

My focus is connecting retailers to the right technologies and partners that can accelerate their ability to unlock opportunities and put their customers at the centre of everything. We want to help retailers, which are facing incredible disruption, to take advantage of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to transform their businesses, unlock new revenue streams and build their brands for new generations of shoppers. And these companies have a deep need for a partner – not a just a vendor. That’s what Microsoft has become for many.

So much is changing in this industry, and it’s changing so quickly that retailers really need to align with technology partners they can trust to have their interests at heart – and not be competing with them down the road.

As a business, we’re focused on helping retailers achieve success across four key areas. The first is ‘know your customers’. To consistently meet and exceed customer expectations, retailers need to leverage artificial intelligence (AI) and data to anticipate the kinds of experiences and products they want before even they know. The second is ‘empower your employees’. In today’s era of rising customer expectations, retailers who don’t properly equip their employees with technology that allows them to focus less on low-value, backroom tasks like schedule management and more on customer experience will end up underdelivering on expectations, which in turn negatively impacts customer loyalty. The third is ‘deliver an intelligent supply chain’. It’s impossible for retailers to deliver on the right product, right place, right time imperative if they don’t have a 360-degree view of their inventory and supply chain. But thanks to the ubiquity of AI and data solutions, this 360-degree view is easier than ever to achieve. The fourth and final area is ‘reimagine retail to create new experiences’. The most successful retailers are the ones who are embracing tech intensity today to plan for their future. Tech intensity requires organisations to stop not at just adopting the latest technology to support their business model transformation, but to go a step further to build their own digital capabilities on top of that technology. Its these digital capabilities that will build the foundation to enable them to keep up with the ever-changing demands of customers.

What do you think are the main factors driving digital transformation in retail and consumer goods spaces right now?

There are a lot of trends and technologies colliding to drive transformation in the industry. One I hear about most often from the customers I talk about is data – how to organise for it, how to win with it and how to be strategic with it. These will all become critical factors for retailers.

Augmented intelligence is also key. Augmented intelligence amplifies normal human intelligence through technology. Some examples are how Carlsberg is using machine learning to augment the manual process of creating new beer flavours, or how retailers like BevMo! and Walmart are using robots to scan for out of stocks.

It’s also important to understand that the lines are blurring between industries. It’s not just retailers looking to better understand their customers – this is important to banks, healthcare organisations and many others as well. Automotive manufacturers are looking for ways to provide new experiential opportunities to current and prospective customers. And so on. 

Finally, on-shelf availability and AI are important. Things like out of stocks and misplaced products are a huge issue for retailers. Not only do these things affect sales, they impact customer satisfaction as well; when a shopper can’t find what he or she wants, they’ll likely take their business elsewhere. Rain checks are a thing of the past. AI is helping retailers recognise product conditions on the shelf – such as availability, assortments, space, pricing, promotions, etc. – and then empowering them to take immediate corrective action.

How do you see the technology landscape changing over the next few years and where will Microsoft add the most value in this new world of intelligent retail?

Technology is constantly changing; and it’s getting better and better. Augmented intelligence, AI and machine learning in particular will get smarter and better at anticipating customer needs before even they know what they need. And last-mile delivery will get closer to the customer. For example, you might order something on your phone one minute and have it delivered to you just a little while later as you’re walking home.

Microsoft will continue to lead improvements across all industries – not just retail – with its solutions across AI, machine learning, the internet of things, cognitive services and more. We provide the platform for retailers to build upon, and that’s a huge piece of the value we bring – retailers don’t need to build solutions from the ground up because we’re giving them the foundation. And it’s helping them realise change faster than they could have on their own.

I believe that the value we bring is also in the nature of how we’re partnering with our retail customers – we’re not just selling them these technologies; rather, we’re working hand-in-hand with them to solve their most pressing challenges and helping them capitalise on their most exciting opportunities.

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