The war between ecommerce and offline retail is only set to escalate further thanks to the thousands of possibilities that recent technology advances provide. However, what is even more interesting is how brick and mortar retail companies too claim to be leveraging the latest technologies and upping their game to compete with Online Retail Giants such as Amazon, Flipkart & Tata Qlik (ORG). Tata Qlik, backed by the TATA group, is the latest Indian entrant in the online retail space.
During my interactions with the CXOs of physical retail, they often talk about Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Deep Learning, Blockchain, etc. when I ask them about the latest technology they are using. While I don’t hate these new technologies, at the same time, there are doubts in my mind as to whether these technologies can provide foolproof solutions to the difficulties faced by offline retailers to compete with Online Retail giants. In my view, these technologies can positively solve their problems to a certain extent, but I also feel it’s too early for offline retailers to invest in these technologies. Moreover, the above-mentioned technologies will require a good amount of investment in licensing, development and implementation. The reason is shortage of skillsets.
Some retailers have already been working with various Solution Providers and System Integrators for months, but they have not yet deployed anything in production. They all have data, but it’s lying in bits and pieces, either in different systems or excel sheets and most of this data doesn’t match. Even though there is a huge amount of data, it is of no use. Now, when they have started working on data centralization or democratization, they are realizing their system is not ready, which in-turn is delaying their journey of adopting newer technologies.
I am sure everyone is trying their best to fix the technical gap, but many of them are not doing it the right way. For example, some retailers are making their primary data lake on CRM application (on cloud), while some of them are using financial ERP application. In all the cases the bigger picture is getting missed out. What companies need is to create a data lake (including data warehousing plan) to serve the data to various applications like CRM, ERP and analytical tools. If retailers don’t centralize data source, they will never be able to reap the advantage of new technologies.
Apart from redefining data architecture, my suggestion to retailers would be to think and understand real solutions. For this, they need to understand the real problems first. I am sure many retailers know the problem better than anyone else, but they may be missing the big picture. One needs to think about the problems from an external users’ or customers’ perspective, for which retailers can have a one-on-one session with their loyal and non-loyal customers to understand their customer expectations. They should not hire consultants, as they are not your customers, they are just vendors, whose job is to raise invoice and make money out of you. Obviously, exceptions are there in every field.
Once you have identified the problem, finding the solutions is not a big deal, but which solution to adopt is can be another challenge. Many times customer experience can be improved through some basic and simple changes, which will not require any technology. However, people tend to look at technology as a panacea for every problem. Thus, I believe we have become too dependent on technology in our day to day routine tasks. For e.g., many people don’t want to remember their meetings and expect everything to be suggested by Google or Alexa. If we become so dependent on Alexa and Google, we will not be able to get the proper solutions for bigger problems, which we face on a regular basis in our organizations. This kind of thinking is known as “Think out of the Box”, which has now changed to “Think out of Technology”.
The moment we all start “Thinking out of Technology” we will get much better solutions than the one offered by consultants. When we get solutions, then that is the right time we should start thinking of using technology to speed up and automate the solutions. For example, robotic process automation (RPA) is a good technology, but it’s not for all industries or retailers. We can use RPA in combination with AI or ML, but not alone. In the same way, we can’t use AI, without having data captured from all the sources or customer interactions.
(Amazon, Flipkart and Tata Qlik have been used in this article for comparison purposes only.)