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Leveraging 2020 Lessons Into Better Customer and Employee Experiences

We asked our panel of experts to share how retailers can turn the challenges experienced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic into opportunities for the future.

Leo Coates

CEO, Coates Group

What is the biggest challenge facing modern retailers today and what advice would you provide to these businesses?  

With the mass migration to ecommerce and on-demand, specifically in the past year, it’s crucial that brands develop an online strategy to meet customers where they are shopping. The notion of a traditional space is changing in both retail and hospitality, so in addition to having a strong online presence, the use of brick-and-mortar space will need to evolve to accommodate changing customer demands. Ultimately, an omnichannel approach to bring the online and physical journeys together so brands can remain consistent across all points of engagement is a huge priority.  

What does “smart retail” mean to you in 2021?  

An omnichannel approach to the customer journey is critical for brands as they create immersive and consistent experiences for their customers in the future. Looking at the customer ecosystem as one holistic mechanism versus individual channels and developing a strategy that stretches across each will ultimately allow brands to maximize every channel. The customer will be better understood by the brand, and a more personalized, unique journey can be created for each customer. 

Additionally, as we continue to see the effects of COVID-19, another and equally important element of smart retail is the continued emphasis on safety in the shopping experience. 

Which retail technology trends have you seen make the biggest impact in the past year as a result of the pandemic? 

Solutions that offer the most frictionless customer experience have undoubtedly seen an accelerated adoption rate due to the pandemic. The integration of mobile, delivery, and curbside services; contactless payment; and the reimagining of the physical space are all trends we’ve seen our clients implement at an expedited rate to pivot with the changing restrictions and ultimately to create the safest experiences for their customers. 

Coupled with an omnichannel approach, this has also allowed brands to better communicate with their customers on their preferred platform, delivering that “anytime, anywhere,” “always-on” engagement. This tailored and consistent communication through the ongoing pandemic has been essential in easing customers’ COVID concerns and anxieties. 

What steps do you recommend retailers take in helping them adapt to the evolving consumer demands?

Each consumer is unique, and therefore has a unique and preferred way of interacting with a brand. It’s so important for brands to understand their customer behavior and preferences, especially in a complex COVID recovery period. Understanding consumers new preferences will inform the right channels for brands to invest in as they uncover what the ‘new norm’ means for them. In the wakeof an increasingly digital world, a digital infrastructure and strategy that leverages data, localization, personalization and loyalty are most certainly keyto future success in retail.

What long-term changes do you foresee the ongoing pandemic having on the retail industry?  

As the pandemic will likely have a long-term impact on the way in which consumers interact with retail brands, the biggest changes might be to the physical infrastructure. Brands should be thinking about what changing role the physical space will have in their customer journey. Both the online and offline spaces will be of equal importance to brands, but understanding how they complement and meld will be key. 

A strong physical presence cannot simply be replicated online, and a strong online presence cannot simply be replicated in the physical space. An integrated approach with digital woven throughout will allow brands to create a cohesive, consistent, and dynamic experience for their customers, regardless of where they are in their journey, and it also offers retailers a new opportunity to turn the brick and mortar spaces into a more engaging brand touchpoint.

Curtis Campbell

Senior Marketing Leader, Hughes Network Systems

What is the biggest challenge facing modern retailers today and what advice would you provide to these businesses?

The pandemic has changed virtually every facet of our lives — especially how we make purchase decisions. In the months following the first COVID lockdowns, many stores were shuttered. Some remain shuttered today. 

What emerged as critical to surviving that phase and everything that’s followed is a retailer’s ability to adapt. For example, to keep their “doors” open, retailers needed to enhance their buy online, pickup in store (BOPIS) and curbside options. And because customers had to select and order products online, it became essential for retailers to deliver a positive e-commerce experience. Without being able to acclimate and innovate in these ways, the retail industry would have struggled even more than it has.

What does “smart retail” mean to you in 2021?

Customers are apprehensive about returning to traditional retail shopping for several reasons. As part of their hesitancy, they now want fast interactions. They’ll decide what they’re shopping for and plan their purchases in advance, so they can leave as quickly as possible. 

So, to me, “smart retail” means capitalizing on all your traffic and maximizing efficiency. For example, that might include providing clear instructions via digital signage to direct people to high-demand products (i.e., milk, eggs, bread, water, and of course toilet paper and hand sanitizer). 

You might offer touchless payment methods and self-checkout areas to further streamline and accelerate the buying experience. And, of course, online shopping, BOPIS, and curbside pickup play a role as well. Smart retailers will capitalize on all of these opportunities. 

Which retail technology trends have you seen make the biggest impact in the past year amidst the ongoing pandemic?

Without question, clear, timely, and relevant communications to both employees and customers are of utmost importance. When someone lacks access to the information they need, they can get frustrated. Add to that the uncertainty stemming from lockdowns, and emotions have been running high. 

Just one bad experience under these circumstances can erode customer and employee loyalty. Those retailers that have stepped up their communications in the wake of the pandemic and who continue to do so going forward will likely outperform those that don’t. 

Good communications can take many forms, but we have seen a noticeable uptick in brands requesting digital signage as a means for quickly posting and updating messages as situations evolve. From signage in front windows that face parking lots, to screens in entryways and lobbies, to screens in aisles and on endcaps, all have surged to the forefront of the smart retailer’s strategy.

What steps do you recommend retailers take to improve their employee engagement?

Good communication may seem like common sense, but it isn’t always common practice. Yet when employees have the information they need, they’re more satisfied, productive, and loyal. They go the extra mile, and they create better customer experiences. 

Solutions that deliver relevant and specific information to employees in a timely fashion are vital. When those same solutions can offer training, recognition, and visibility into performance metrics, employee engagement can be elevated even further. 

Large retailers are increasingly deploying digital signage in break rooms or the “back office” so they can put information at their employees’ fingertips when they need it most.

What long-term changes do you foresee the ongoing pandemic having on the retail industry?

Shoppers want to be able to stay informed, to learn about the surroundings they’ll encounter, and conduct aggressive price shopping. They may expect even more in terms of service. They want products to be available in-store or to be shipped to their home faster than ever. 

Because of this, retailers need to listen carefully to what their customers are saying, and smart retailers will look to technology solutions that support their ability to meet those wants and needs. Whether that means digital signage that will better guide customers and empower associates, or more reliable Wi-Fi to create a digital buying experience, or a faster and more convenient check-out process and real-time inventory systems. 

If you’re a retailer, you should look to forward-thinking providers that can meet your vision to serve customers. All of your customers’ needs add up to your clear “why” — the reasons you may decide to adapt your operations. When you answer your “why,” you can then choose how you’ll execute those changes.

Dan Gilmore

CMO, Softeon

What is the biggest challenge facing modern retailers today and what advice would you provide to these businesses? 

I don’t know that there is a single biggest retail challenge — these vary by sector and individual retailer — but certainly an important one for most is getting logistics and last-mile delivery right. And “right” means doing it better than the competition in terms of service and cost.

It’s interesting if you think about it: What drove Walmart to prominence and eventually its place as the largest retailer on the planet was its logistics excellence; a capability most other retailers paid only modest attention to at the time. Walmart used its lower-cost logistics model to support its everyday low-price strategy, and the results speak for themselves.

Now, in a new era, Amazon has used its delivery of ever-faster and free fulfillment to dominate online shopping, putting it on a path to potentially overtake Walmart in terms of retail sales, with a pace of network rollout and innovation that is simply unnerving from a competitive perspective. 

The overall environment and logistics of fulfillment requirements are in constant flux, and the process and technology options are many. My recommendation would simply be to make decisions and investments in a way that leaves the most options on the table for as long as possible. That may cost a little more, as “real-options” thinking would suggest, but agility going forward may be the most important competitive advantage of all.

What does “smart retail” mean to you in 2021?

“Smartness” is obviously a function of what you know. From a retail supply chain perspective, “what you know” is a function of the level of granular, real-time visibility a retailer has to inventory, orders, capacities, and constraints across an extended network. A “smart” retail supply chain is one that has the ability to decide the best way to fulfill each and every order in the moment, as it is received, considering a wide range of variables and attributes, and maintaining that real-time visibility. 

The “best way” applies at both a network level and at a node or distribution center level. Think in terms of creating both a smart network and also a smart “warehouse of the future” — though what many consider a future state is in reality available right now.

Which retail technology trends have you seen make the biggest impact in the last year due to the ongoing pandemic?

As a result of the pandemic and the significant changes in consumer behavior that accelerated the growth in ecommerce, many — if not most — retailers were simply overwhelmed in terms of order fulfillment cost and capacity last year. I’ve spoken with a number of retailers who said their goal was just to survive the 2020 peak, at whatever cost, and then plan for improvement in terms of process, productivity, and capacity in 2021.

That improvement often starts with a technology called distributed order management (DOM), which has become essential for retailers with multiple fulfillment points, including its own distribution centers, third-party facilities, stores, drop-ship vendors, and more.

There really has not been anything quite like DOM in retail supply chains before — the ability to define exactly the business and fulfillment strategies, and rules you want to follow in a very flexible way, and then have those decisions executed in real-time for each order dynamically, with the ability to easily make changes to those business rules over time. 

In the face of the surging ecommerce demand, many retailers also realized that distribution automation at various levels is essential for getting cost and throughput to where they need to be. This includes major interest by retailers in what we might call partial automation systems — technologies such as “put walls” and mobile robots. These and other technologies can offer many operational improvements but at a lower investment cost and with greater flexibility than traditional distribution center automation.

For example, we have one omnichannel retail warehouse management system customer that started with a single put wall module, and after experiencing obvious benefits, they implemented nine more. They eventually decided on 20 additional units, with the result being a significant reduction in fulfillment costs per order.

What steps do you recommend retailers take to improve their supply chains?

I would recommend thinking in terms of “orchestrating” order fulfillment, and doing so at multiple levels.

At the network level, that means planning and executing order fulfillment with precision, selecting the optimal sourcing point that meets customer service commitments at the least possible cost while considering network capacities and constraints — and doing so dynamically. 

For example, do you want to maintain a minimum store inventory for a given item, and therefore not sending an order for fulfillment if it would take that store inventory below the minimum? Or is the policy “ship to zero?”

There is no right answer. The key is having tools to apply those rules — and easily change them as requirements and strategies evolve.

But retailers can also orchestrate fulfillment at the distribution center level as well.

Tools available in newer warehouse execution systems (WES) allow similar fulfillment optimization and precision to ensure orders are fulfilled at the pick, pack, and ship levels in a way that also meets service commitments, but at the lowest possible operating costs.

An example would be optimizing the automated flow of work to the distribution center floor that is aware of parcel carrier cut-off times, ensuring the orders that need to get on that truck do so — without the level of chaos that often accompanies this process today.

By using tools that can orchestrate order fulfillment at both the network and node level, retailers can make some really “sweet music” in terms of customer experience and ecommerce profitability.

What long-term changes do you foresee the ongoing pandemic having on the retail industry?

I often say it this way: Brick-and-mortar retail isn’t going away, but some (and perhaps many) individual brick-and-mortar retailers will. That reality was simply accentuated by the pandemic.

One critical long-term impact of COVID-19 is that as many traditional retailers were hit hard by the pandemic, consumer goods companies that relied on those brick-and-mortar retailers saw their sales take a huge hit.

The natural response: go direct-to-consumer. Nike is leading the way, with its Consumer Direct Acceleration program, and many others are headed down this same path.

That means in addition to competing with their traditional rivals and the threat from Amazon, many retailers will also be competing with their own vendors for a share of the consumer’s wallet.

This just highlights the need for excellence, speed, and agility in fulfillment as a still higher imperative. It may mean the difference between those who successfully navigate this brave new world and those who don’t.

Fabio Lovesio

Head of Industry Solutions, Board International

What is the biggest challenge facing modern retailers today and what advice would you give to these businesses?

Today’s retailers need to react quickly, adapting to situations that can change in a few days, if not hours. Think about the impact of COVID-19 on different retail segments worldwide — grocers faced extreme volume and logistics pressures, many fashion brands had to shut physical stores and become multichannel overnight, and restaurants had to turn to home delivery, all while responding to on-and-off restrictions from local authorities. In the end, the pandemic served as the worst possible stress test for retailers that had not heavily invested in digital and omnichannel approaches and suffered with slow decision-making processes.

What does “smart retail” mean to you in 2021? 

To me, smart retail refers to the ability to continuously reinvent in line with changing markets and consumers. This means introducing innovative products and services (think about the new clothing rental trend or food delivery services that literally didn’t exist a few years ago) with a constant focus on customer experience at every touch point and on all channels. Smart retailers are already three steps ahead in their digital transformation journeys, and can now put all their efforts into innovation rather than fixing information silos or slow planning processes behind the scenes.

Which retail technology trends have you seen make the biggest impact in the past year as a result of the pandemic? 

For me, it is the dramatic acceleration of the online channel. For fashion retailers, e-tailing was previously perceived as a different kind of store, which is not the best way to exploit the opportunities it offers. Faced with physical store closures, they rapidly adjusted their approach. Grocery went online, too, and in some cases an entire logistics chain had to be built from scratch. Paradoxically, restaurants had an advantage since the logistics chain had already been built by home delivery companies at no cost to them. COVID-19 changed the paradigm forever; online went from trend to the new normal.

Where do you see analytics having the biggest impact in retail this year? 

If combined effectively with an integrated planning approach, analytics has the power to transform retailers’ ability to adapt to change. Prior to COVID, it was inconceivable that plans and strategies could alter overnight, meaning retailers rarely explored the huge amount of data available to them. “Big data,” “AI,” and “machine learning” were buzzwords, but were they exploited? Probably not, considering the number of companies still struggling to try and derive useful information and plans from Excel files. I think retailers have now realized that reactivity is key, and any insights derived from analytics are precious.

What long-term changes do you foresee the ongoing pandemic having on the retail industry?

Firstly, online channels becoming the norm, supporting physical store performance for the smartest retailers and partially cannibalizing it for those that have not designed a proper, integrated strategy and enhanced the customer journey. Secondly, more agile and effective supply chains to reduce lead times from supplier to end consumer. Finally, we’ll see a real exploitation of big data and analytics coming from every possible source — not just the customer. Until now, this has never really been used for decision-making.

Lori Greiner

Investor, “Shark Tank”

Your motto is “I’ll make you millions.” Where does your confidence come from in the tough world of retail sales? 

My confidence comes from two things: experience and knowing what’s going to work. I’ve always been lucky in that I have a natural knack for knowing what products will work in the market. It truly is a combination of having a good instinct and applying common sense to that instinct. 

For example, products that solve a universal problem or need in a better way are much more likely to be successful than products that don’t. I’ve created and launched more than 600 products, so I know exactly what to do and what it takes to get a product out in the market and make it a success.

I know the right path each different item should take to make it successful, and at this point I have amazing connections and partners in which to execute that path. I find great satisfaction and reward in having successfully helped to change many aspiring American entrepreneurs’ and their families’ lives. Scrub Daddy, Simply Fit, and Sleep Styler to name a few. We all worked hard and I’m proud to say these are touted to be the three of the most successful products in Shark Tank history.

What are the points that a product or service must have in order for you to know it will be “sellable”? 

If it’s a product, that it can be manufactured at a good price, or if it’s a service, that the business can be run economically.

That product or service can be purchased at an affordable price; you can have a great product or service, but if people can’t afford to buy it, it’s not going to work. You have to compare yourself to what’s on the market already and beat it. A winning combination is being a better product or service, and being even more affordable than your competition.

How do you feel about the underrepresentation of women in sales and what do you think companies can do to change the stigma? 

I think women are underrepresented in business in general. I think the stigma is changing with the up-and-coming generations that realize women are not only brilliant, but also incredibly capable and talented, as much as if not more so at times than their male counterparts.

Companies need to look at women as individuals and not by their sex. I think that women in the corporate structure are making amazing advancements. As we keep showing our abilities, it continues to get better and better. The newer generations are not as concerned with sexism. Respect and admiration for women and their abilities is growing at a rapid pace thanks to modern thinking.

In your book, you talk about inventing, selling, and banking — what qualities do you think a salesperson — and women in particular — need to have to best sell a product? 

It’s extremely important when selling something to really know all the features and benefits of your product; what makes it great and why. That it’s better than anything else. 

Most important along with that is having genuine passion and love for what you’re selling. Passion and enthusiasm are infectious. I’ve never sold anything that I didn’t really believe in or really liked. If you’re going to sell something, it’s important that you pick something that you genuinely love and believe in. If you don’t believe in it, no one else will.

Kristian F. Beloff

CEO, SellPro

What is the biggest challenge retailers are facing today and what advice would you provide to these businesses? 

If I was to pick a single biggest challenge, I’d have to say it would be identifying and deciding which innovations and technology they’d need to adopt in a very short period of time to help them stay relevant and fiscally healthy through the current COVID crisis, but that would also have staying power long-term. Often during a crisis of this magnitude, there is a tendency to razor-focus on pure survival, which may cause diminished attention on factors and strategy that would bring long-term success. So, my advice would be to also look beyond COVID when making those decisions. 

What does “smart retail” mean to you in 2021?

I see several ways to look at this, so I’ll focus on the most fundamental. At the end of the day, retail is about delighting customers by providing the right experience, service, and value so they keep coming back. In my opinion, smart retail in 2021 boils down to doing those same things, but in more dimensions. This includes a mix of more advanced technology, streamlined processes, and well-trained people that can carry a seamless, completely unified customer experience across physical stores, online, virtual, and phone shopping by practically eliminating the gaps between those channels. 

Which retail technology trends have you seen make the biggest impact in the past year as a result of the ongoing pandemic?

When the pandemic spread last year, so did consumer anxiety to set foot in physical stores, so retailers’ priorities shifted toward implementing technology focused on alleviating safety concerns, expanding convenience, and improving the consumer experience in a “new normal.” I’d say the most impactful safety-focused technology included contactless payments and touchless displays. The technology enabling curbside pickup, endless aisle, and home delivery brought the most convenience to consumers and helped many brick-and-mortar retailers stay relevant, while chatbots, video shopping, and AR helped bring online shopping closer to the physical store. 

What steps do you recommend retailers take to improve their employee training and engagement?

I think the most essential shift that needs to happen is for retailers to start looking at their employees as consumers of content, rather than as subjects to get trained. Consumers won’t engage if the wrong content is served the wrong way or via the wrong medium, and retail employees won’t either. 

Today, most content is consumed on mobile devices, so employee engagement needs to be:

  • Mobile-first
  • Bite-sized
  • Entertaining and gamified
  • Ongoing

Additionally, engagement needs to involve more than just training by tying in recognition, rewards, two-way communications, and tools that make day-to-day work easier. 

What long-term changes due you foresee the ongoing pandemic having on the retail industry?

I think many of the core changes that happened in retail started years earlier, and the pandemic just ultra-accelerated them. Those changes are here to stay. Consumer behavior shifted toward online shopping, so multi-channel retail will continue evolving. Retailers will continue optimizing physical stores for it, including allocating more space for local fulfilment, re-tasking store personnel between facilitating in-store and online shopping, and adopting new technology to make the experience more seamless. 

Store staffing levels will likely remain lower, but the need for better-trained and tech-savvy personnel will increase in order to handle a more diverse set of responsibilities with heavier reliance on technology. 

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