Retail Systems reports from Cegid Connections

Unified commerce and consolidating omnichannel strategies were the key themes of 2017’s Cegid Connections conference last month. Over 450 retailers and industry figureheads gathered in Budapest to hear keynote speakers, retail organisations and technology partners discuss the continuing importance of the customer journey, the changing nature of retail, and how the roll-out of technology is helping both shape and deliver new consumer experiences.

The rate of digital transformation in the retail sector and the significance of omnichannel operations were aspects touched on in this year’s opening keynote speech by the founder and CEO of Peps Labs, Catherine Barba, who is also a former e-commerce entrepreneur and now a startup investor.

She argued that pure-play retailers were not necessarily the future of the sector, as just two out of the current top 25 US retailers were online-only, and even Amazon had started to make the move into physical outlets. “One reason they [pure-plays] are not the future is that we all still want to go to stores,” she noted.

However, she cautioned that “boring” point of sale experiences still needed an overhaul, as “the least interesting thing about a product is purchasing it”. And retailers could learn from agile and fast-moving technology companies when it came to addressing pain-points such as this in the customer journey, she told delegates. “We are all in a process of transformation, but are we aware that we need to accelerate it? Don’t pretend to be a startup, but you can learn a lot from looking at their framework and generating an advantage.”

Barba was followed on stage by Robbin Mitchell, partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group (BCG), who spoke of the fundamental shift in the way that consumers were interacting with retailers and with each other, and how this evolution of customer behaviour was increasingly fast-paced.

Citing new BCG research, she explained that omnichannel was set to reach a 25 to 35 per cent penetration level by 2020, through continued rates of annual double-digit growth. In the US, 75 per cent of customers were already looking for a multi-channel experience – particularly Millennials, she said. “Looking at the trends, they [Millennials] are holistically interacting any place, any time and anywhere.”

Mobile is of course a key connector in the current marketplace, with purchases made via this channel expected to double over the next three years in the US alone. Some 86 per cent of Millennials are already using mobile to support a purchase and overall, six in ten purchases are “digitally influenced” Mitchell noted, with between 25 and 40 per cent of shoppers starting their research via digital means.

She observed that whereas products, physical stores or transactions may have been the central focus of retail strategies at various points in the past, the future would be “customer-centric” –shaped by customer relationships, technology and brand interactions.

“It’s about omnichannel and the seamless blend between physical and digital, leading to a cultural and mindset shift. Stores are important, but how you use and merchandise them will change in the future,” she told the audience, adding that personal experiences would now shape how customers viewed retailers overall.

Current trends across the retail landscape and the way that technology is influencing these was a topic covered at the event by Tania Oakey, Cegid’s retail marketing director. With this in mind, she outlined the four big themes to come out of January’s Big NRF Retail Show in New York (which was attended by 35,000 industry professionals): technology innovation, customer experiences, investing in people and data analytics.

Describing omnichannel as “no longer a trend but the norm”, Oakey also highlighted new retail trends on the horizon: frictionless experiences, artificial intelligence, messaging apps, voice as the new interface, the rise of robots, virtual and augmented reality, and the better utilisation of data.

She observed that “more and more retailers are abandoning apps in favour of chatbots” and that voice conversations – such as those carried out through Amazon’s digital Alexa assistant – will become mainstream, accounting for 30 per cent of technology interactions by 2018 according to Gartner. Amazon’s Dash Buttons were also a good example of the type of “simple and frictionless” purchasing experience that retailers should be delivering to customers, Oakey added, while in-store robot assistants and pavement delivery robots were starting to be rolled out in several markets.

The growing emergence of virtual reality in retail has been demonstrated by Alibaba, the world’s largest retailer, which offered a virtual store for the first time in 2016 for its Singles’ Day – the biggest shopping event globally, which generated $14 billion in sales last year, the audience heard. Suggesting data “could be the new oil” Oakey concluded by pointing out how crucial it was for retailers to take advantage of the data available to them – whether that be tracking customer demographics in-store through facial recognition, using feedback to anticipate customer needs and improve products, or by collating existing data to offer individual customers a truly personalised and unified retail experience.

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