Retail is undergoing an unprecedented level of disruption.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the increasing popularity of e-commerce is changing retail as we know it. New generation brands exist purely online to cater to a growing demographic that shop exclusively on the web. Shopping for groceries in brick-and-mortar stores is now seen as a rare occasion, or oftentimes unnecessary for many. As a result, retailers must now only amend their operational models, but compete with new competitors in the market.
Long gone are the days when incrementalism strategies can support brands. In addition, product relevance has changed to such a degree that small online businesses have completely upended the economics of an entire market. As a result, international chains can no longer compete with online shops that now sell, show and provide consumers with more efficient return policies.
A Solemn Forecast for the Traditional Retail Industry
In the past two years, we have seen household name brands rise and fall as a result of their abilities to adopt to new consumer trends. Fallen giants, like Topshop and other names within the Arcadia empire, are cautionary tales for other brands that forego having an online platform. Their inability to provide friction-free and customer-focused strategies resulted in their downfall. According to retail strategist Michael Hewson of CMC Market, Arcadia’s ‘underinvestment in digital’ directly contributed to its failings:
‘The chain of iconic brands, which have been a staple of the UK high street for decades, has been in difficulties for some time now […] The lack of coherent strategy to deal with changing consumer behaviour, and the move to online shopping, has seen the business struggle’
According to a McKinsey report, retail players who silo their operations, supply chain and merchandising to traditional methods will buckle under future customer pressures.
‘Many brick-and-mortar stores are struggling. In part, that’s due to the rise of e-commerce […], which accounts for more than 40% of retail sales growth. Additionally, younger shoppers favour e-shopping: 42% of millennials say they prefer the online retail experience and avoid stores altogether when they can. Heightened customer expectations, massive advancements in technology and the rise of omnichannel commerce will reshape the entire world of retail’
What can Retailers Do to Keep Up?
To survive, a significant portion of consumer retailers have taken on digital strategies to support their customer interactions. Specifically, they have invested in personalisation engines to enhance their deliverables.
Experts and consultancies alike believe personalisation will be the prime driver of success for retailers. Advances in technology, data and analytics now enable retailers to create more personal and human experiences across all buying channels.
The next level of retail personalisation is projected to predict customer needs through Big Data. Additionally, more advanced Machine Learning (ML) and Augmented Reality (AR) features will help customers experience products and services in different environments. The heightened use of ML will help retailers to anticipate customers’ reactions and emotional cues to certain products and services:
‘More sophisticated algorithms are allowing programs to interpret new kinds of data (visual, auditory) and extrapolate emotions much more effectively than in the past. […] In time, these advances could help retailers communicate with customers in a way that’s tied to specific moods, offering specifically curated promotions for all products that match that mood’
Furthermore, more advanced workflow automation tools will help retailers make the customers’ journey more efficient. Certain apps and platforms can now leverage personalisation and automation to connect customers with more products and vendors. This can be achieved through connecting multiple retail channels to provide a more integrated and relevant experience for the customers.
nate: Giving Customers More Independence
Further, these tools can use personalisation automation to enhance the symbiotic relationship between vendor and consumer. The app nate is leading the way for empowering both consumer and seller, through its AI-powered neural networks.
Uniquely, nate uses intelligent automation to streamline the shopping experience for customers and retailers. According to its CTO Min Ong, nate does the ‘heavy lifting’ for both the customer and the retail brand.
‘Our mission was to use machine learning to automate tasks for the consumer, instead of influencing their decisions. We saw a gap in the consumer retail space, in terms of optimising checkout flows for customers. So we created a way to bridge this gap through Robotic Process Automation (RPA), which streamlines the checkout process for customers at any merchant on the web, anywhere in the world’
The nate interface differs from other e-commerce offerings, in that it allows users share and buy any product on the internet, no matter the original merchant or channel. Additionally, it helps consumers appreciate the lineage of bespoke items. It removes the focus away from fast-fashion retailers, as it provides consumers with more access to alternative merchants across the world. According to Min, nate allows consumers to maintain freedom of choice, as it prevents them from being algorithmically siloed to particular internet vendors.
‘Our app enables smaller merchants and consumers to connect. Since building the automation piece in the backend of the app, we’ve simplified the checkout flow for the consumer so that they can focus on finding the items that they actually want. Further, the app allows users to create ‘lists’, so that they can curate products that they want, no matter where the vendor is in the world’
Aside from creating features that give consumers more product choices, nate ensures that they remain ‘data’ autonomous. It is no secret that some online retailers collect consumer data, in order to drive customer attention to particular sites and products. Conversely, the Nate app protects its users from data proliferation and, according to Min, ‘puts them first’:
‘We focus on finding revenue channels that do not exploit our user data. Instead, we’ve created an iOS app that allows users to access automation in a secure environment’
Looking to the Future
COVID-19 has changed consumer behaviour, for better or for worse. New engagement models now, such as ‘click and collect’ and online delivery, allow for continued engagement across all retail platforms.
Going forward, retailers will inevitably rely on tools like nate to enhance their omni-channel approaches and customer personalisation. To remain relevant in this changing landscape, retailers need to set their operational ‘North Star’ in optimising the customer experience. Only those who can reimagine their operations to optimise customer experience will recover faster from the pandemic.
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