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Technology is the life-jacket for retailers, not a torpedo…

Over the last decade, bricks-and-mortar stores have come under attack, not just from ecommerce giants like Amazon & Rakuten, but also from private equity & hedge funds looking to buy companies in the hope of flipping or stripping their assets in return for quick profits.

All this combined, means that traditional retailers (big & small), must now look to online presence & technology as key ways of developing their routes to market, defending their existing customer base & expanding into new customer areas too.

To give it some context about the inroads the online eCommerce giants have made in the 2000s we only have to look at Jeff Bezos’ baby, Amazon.

In 2006 Amazon’s global revenue was just under $11bn. Fast-forward to 2020 & last year saw it make more than $385bn. That’s quite the growth curve, & it’s no surprise that Amazon is now regularly valued as one of the most valuable companies in the world, closing in on the $2 trillion valuation mark.

Much has been written about the reasons why Amazon & the likes have been so successful in such a relatively short period of time, with many highlighting deep pockets & sophisticated technology investments as the primary reasons for the growth.

While heavy spending around big data mining & analytics, AI development & smart CRM applications are all contributing factors to Bezos’ success, Amazon’s technology development spend is not something that traditional retailers should be looking to mimic or match euro for euro, dollar for dollar.

As dev. cycles have accelerated significantly over the last five years, associated costs for cutting-edge tech have subsequently tumbled. This has resulted in tech becoming more democratised & available than ever before, & this is where embattled retailers can look to make significant advances from improving in-store & omni-channel online experiences, to uncovering new revenue opportunities with for current & (crucially), new customers.

In 2021, even if your brand has a well-known high-street presence, more is required to survive the challenges of industry developments & shifting consumer expectations. A great online & mobile presence; effective social media channels; onmichannel customer communications; smarter/safer use of customer data & the implementation of cutting edge tech like microservices, AI/ML & digital twins are a necessity today.

Whereas ten years ago, the majority of these elements would have been out of reach for most, today roles have reversed & almost all are available universally in one form or another, regardless of whether you’re an established high-street brand like John Lewis, or a pop-up food vendor in a trendy Berlin tourist spot .

Take AI for example. Traditional retailers rarely have the luxury of the huge research & development funds that Amazon does, but there are clear examples of how AI can directly & immediately be of benefit without costing the earth.

The first, is its impact on sales & marketing functions. During the early stages of a retail business’ development many will not have the capital to fund a fully-functioning backend sales & marketing team. Customer-relationship management (CRM), systems designed to gather customer data across channels such as email, phone and social with the purpose of helping improve and even automate the sales process, can significantly help & provide the gains, without huge numbers of physical staff.

Platforms such as Salesforce have already begun implementing AI that helps analyse customer feedback across a variety of channels and then automatically adjusts marketing & lead generation activities based on that information, making a clear & tangible ROI from AI easy to see from online activity.

Secondly, a very popular example of AI at work is the Chatbot. More & more companies of all sizes have begun using Chatbots on their websites over the last 24 months to initiate customer communication & help answer basic questions — think of a Chatbot as a sales & customer service rep that works for you 24/7, even when you’re asleep. For cash-strapped retailers looking to maximise their online presence, or even pure-play online companies these virtual team members have clear benefit.

Chatbots are likely something you’ve already encountered before, whether you realized you were dealing with AI or not. Chances are, if you’ve seen one of those popups on the bottom right of the screen when you first visit a website asking if you have any questions, you’ve probably already had a conversation with a Chatbot.

For many businesses at the start of their journey, budget for dedicated customer service or sales teams is a challenge — if that’s the case, a Chatbot can help alleviate the pressure & allow you to focus efforts on the tasks that matter most like creating brand awareness through social channels, event attendance & engaging with your relevant press & influencers — all areas where there’s unlikely to be a substitute for real people any time soon.

With the recent findings from a study commissioned by Keeper Security suggesting that SMBs are the primary target for cyber-attacks, with most still unprepared to deal with the fallout from such attacks, the key for small/medium retailers will be to make sure that it is not just tech savvy in terms of online, omni-channel presence, but that it is also ‘data savvy’ too.

Fines of $5bn to Facebook & $200m for British Airways, resulting from consumer data misappropriation & data leaks, are stark reminders that while technology awareness & adoption is a must for any organisation across any sector, digitalisation doesn’t come without its own risks.

While the fines for falling foul of regulation like GDPR can be off-set by multinational, deep-pocketed organisations like Marriott or Equifax, fines (up to 20% of annual revenue for GDPR breaches) will be more difficult to manage for the likes of smaller embattled retailers.

Whether you’re a smart, small, start-up looking to compete with larger more established brands in the same space, or a traditional retailer trying to realign with shifting consumer expectations, & compete with ecommerce giants like Amazon & Rakuten, it is key to understand the pivotal role technologies like AI, CRM, IoT connected smart systems & robotics can play as part of broader retail fulfilment networks.

It is hugely important to remember this one fundamental point: if you don’t have a handle on your data or visibility of your entire inventory, & if you can’t marry the two together to discern true business insight, nothing else really matters.



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James Canham-Ash

James Canham-Ash


Communicator, sportsman, history-lover, enthusiastic world citizen, political onlooker & aspiring BBC WS presenter, not always in that order — TMO.