Omnichannel retail: A Few Lessons from NRF's Big Show


National retail federation big show 2014 oxford consulting groupThe National Retail Federation's Big Show convention recently wrapped up after appearances from more than 500 solutions providers and 300 experts in the industry. While many ideas were discussed, numerous conversations were centered around improving order management and enabling omnichannel retail initiatives. Some of the key takeaways were purely technical - as Retail Info Systems News reported, Macy's implementation of radio-frequency identification technology was featured for improving inventory accuracy and driving better sales. However, the ways in which organizations leveraged technology solutions in conjunction with new strategies were even more impressive. Below are a few of the key takeaways from the 2014 Big Show.

1. Ensure the basics are in place
The rush of new technology solutions for retailers is exciting, but it's important to remember the core factors involved in successfully selling products. As Macy's showcased, improving foundational elements such as the warehouse management system can be linked directly to increased revenue. Furthermore, the company is not alone in its shift toward RFID. According to solutions provider Avery Dennison, approximately 66 percent of the top 30 retailers use this technology. 

"If you're not doing it now, you're already behind, and if that doesn't scare you, it should," said Bill Hardgrave, dean of the Harbert College of Business at Auburn University. "To succeed in the retail and apparel industry, you've got to solve the fundamentals first, which means inventory accuracy, and then you can focus on enhancing the customer experience. If you haven't started addressing the fundamentals, you are behind."

An effective inventory management solution will also lend itself to linking business processes to the technical ones. This ensures that companies not only have accurate data but that stakeholders understand how to best use and manage it.

2. Treat analytics as a resource
One of the main reasons someone would want to shop at a store is to lean on the staff's expertise - a person might have a general idea of what they want but lack certainty as to which product fulfills those needs. For instance, in IBM's Big Show discussion, which centered on the company's investment in big data and the cloud for its supercomputer Watson, leveraged the example of a customer considering equipment for outdoor travel. An in-store shopper could ask an employee about the type of supplies and clothing to bring based on his or her destination. Online shoppers must rely on basic product recommendation engines that can't translate a customer's question into a suggestion that makes sense. However, the idea behind investment in Watson is to be able to take product and review data to provide information based on questions that a customer asks.

The lesson of note here is that nearly all types of data can be a business resource if used appropriately, and the growing need for positive customer experiences means that information will become an even more valuable asset for companies. As CRM's Sarah Sluis noted, analytics investments must also move beyond pure descriptive functionality. Although not every organization has a supercomputer handy to power its analytics initiatives, the increasing maturity of such tools means that many will have the predictive functionality necessary to create positive customer experiences.

One of the main barriers to analytics investment is a lack of trust. From the NSA's PRISM program to major data breaches in the retail sector, confidence in information security and privacy has been shaken up over the past several months. This means that organizations must go a step beyond industry compliance and ensure they are following best practices when handling customer data. In addition, the customer will want to see value and transparency - any data collection activities and their value to the customer should be clear.

3. Enable customized shopping experiences
The shift toward personalized shopping recommendations is one sign of the importance of enabling customized customer experiences, but customization must extend beyond the website. Speaking at the Big Show, Lynn Dornblaser, director of innovation and insight at research firm Mintel Group, highlighted the emergence of technology that lends itself to highly tailored products and services. For example, NASA is working on a project that would enable its astronauts to print food. While it may still be some time before the average consumer can download the design for a pizza and then print a fresh slice at home, the development shows the significant momentum for customization.

"They would like to have more control to pick and choose what goes in a combo meal, for example," Dornblaser said, according to COLLOQUY's Lisa Biank Fasig. "They want to be able to customize things and be what they want them to be."

This trend extends throughout all stages of the customer's journey, from the time he or she visits a branded website to customer service. Clients will increasingly look to leverage numerous channels for making purchases as well as contacting companies for more information. All of these avenues must be integrated to ensure employees have the data to address customers' needs as quickly as possible.

Check out these other omni-channel articles from Lightwell:

IBM study: Consumers willing to give personal data in exchange for value, experience

Omnichannel  retail and supply chain management lessons from the Sochi Olympics

Why IT needs to be part of your omnichannel retail strategy

Keeping up with the 'Omnis': Overcoming challenges in omnichannel retailing

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