In race to remain relevant, retailers need to get smart with data, says Microsoft UK

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By Liz Leigh Bowler, Dynamics 365 senior product manager at Microsoft UK 

2020 saw the retail industry change at an unprecedented pace. As shops moved online, supply chains were disrupted, consumer behaviour shifted, and the sector was forced to pivot like never before. 

According to Deloitte, in the first half of 2020, the retail industry saw five years of growth in online market share in a matter of weeks. Likewise, at Microsoft, we’ve seen digital capabilities that previously took months or years to instigate, deployed within days and weeks. 

While much of the digital transformation we’ve seen in the retail sector over the past 12 months is the acceleration of pre-existing trends, the scale of this change has been staggering. As the industry continues to adapt and evolve, one thing is clear: only those ready and willing to keep pace with innovation, will thrive in 2021 and beyond.

So, what do retailers need to focus on to drive growth and remain relevant? 

Harness your data 

Data is one of the most valuable assets a retailer has. Why? If understood and employed strategically, it can help open up new revenue streams and opportunities for growth, detect customer preferences and pain points and drive brand differentiation.  

Joining up the dots of different data streams, systems and technologies can often be viewed as intimidating for retailers, with many convinced that it will require a large team of data specialists to make sense of disparate data sets. But it doesn’t have to be this difficult. 

Take iconic British footwear brand, Dr Martens. Previously reliant on legacy applications, analysts would spend all their time creating reports, leaving little time to evaluate data into actionable insights. But through deploying Microsoft Dynamics 365, teams are now able to quickly unify large volumes of data to create a holistic picture of customers, products and operations. This is enabling the company to make much more informed business decisions at a faster pace, with analysts able to quickly bring together different data sets using AI, analyse customer interactions with cross-channel analytics and predict customer intent using pre-built AI models. 

Harnessing data and analytics in this way allows retailers to give customers what they want in the moment, increase the agility and accuracy of decision making and unlock new revenue streams to drive growth.

Ensure a seamless experience

It goes without saying that retailers are acutely aware of the importance of omni-channel. Yet in the current climate, investment in a truly seamless experience cannot be underestimated. 

Customers are firmly in charge of their shopping experience, dictating how, when, and where they interact with brands. While it’s certainly a plus that retailers can now connect directly with customers across an array of new channels, however the downside is that they can be increasingly fickle. 

As they switch between online and offline channels, customers expect interactions with brands to be seamless, with success often dependent on speed and convenience. Confusing navigation, sluggish load times and inconsistencies between different channels are all factors which can instantly erode loyalty and prevent sales. After all, regardless of the number of different channels of engagement, customers only see one brand. 

Retailers need to listen to consumer needs, understand their impulses and align their shopping experiences accordingly. Taking this considered approach is helping Fortnum & Mason drive memorable experiences in-store, online and across the globe. In harnessing Microsoft Dynamics 365 Commerce the company has been able to better anticipate customer needs, identify the best communications channels to engage them and pinpoint the products and services they want to see in the future. All of this is helping Fortnum & Mason drive brand loyalty and differentiation. 

Strengthen your supply chain 

Another implication of COVID-19 has been the exposure of global supply chain vulnerabilities. Now, more than ever, organisations need to build resilience into their supply chain, harnessing technology to gain real-time visibility into their inventory so they can respond quickly to issues, meet fast changing customer needs and resolve demand and supply imbalances. 

Transforming supply chain operations isn’t an easy feat, but in harnessing cloud-based solutions, retailers can dramatically reduce the time and effort it takes to modernise operations and ensure their business is resilient to disruptions. Take AO.com, the online electrical retailer has experienced rapid growth in recent years and is using Microsoft Dynamics 365 Supply Chain Management to offer staff a single view of its operations, vendors and products so that they can quickly optimise stock and logistics, make informed decisions and streamline operations as they continue to scale. 

Looking ahead

Standing out from the crowd has never been important for the retail industry. In a world of near-infinite choice, shoppers are looking for a reason to bestow their custom and loyalty. 

While many retailers have laid firm digital foundations in the past year, they mustn’t take their foot off the pedal. Infusing intelligence into every element of retail operations will be essential for retailers to drive agility and growth, meet customer demands and ultimately, remain relevant in 2021 – and beyond.