“I decided to use a bike for commuting to work even though I've not used one in the last 20 years – I was following UK government advice. But even after looking for a month, I've had no luck at all finding a suitable one.”
Shankar Narayanan is President and Global Head, Retail and CPG at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). His experience of trying to buy something as common as a bike during the Coronavirus pandemic is something many of us will be able to identify with.
It also illustrates one of the biggest challenges for the retail and consumer packaged products industries in the wake of Coronavirus: predicting consumers’ rapidly changing demand patterns and providing adequate supplies of the products they want.
Narayanan was hosting a session entitled “A New Beginning: The New Paradigm of Customer Experience,” as part of the TCS Innovation Forum 2020 series to discuss the way ahead for retail and CPG at a time when consumer buying behaviour is undergoing significant transformation.
TCS Innovation Forum is an annual, invite-only conference that brings together more than a thousand C-suite leaders from around the world to discuss the innovation, research and technology agenda. Reflecting the role of technology has played during the pandemic, the conference has been transformed into a series of virtual events.
To unravel the challenges companies face in recapturing consumers’ imagination and retaining them, “The New Paradigm of Customer Experience” virtual event assembled a panel of business leaders to share their perspective on the immediate priorities for retail and CPG industries.
New customer behaviour results in new Opportunities
As consumers, all of us have been witness to how our shopping habits have changed over the last few months. In fact, this change was always happening and the recent events have only amplified and accelerated this trend.
The food and grocery industries have clearly been leading the way in adopting the new customer behaviour shift. “In my business certainly we are on a fast path to digitalize the whole tracking, supply chain, shipping industry, and our mobile technology growth is almost 250 percent,” said Jeff Schreiner, CEO of Roger and CIO of Scoular.
Rucha Nanavati, Group VP, IT, Albertsons, agreed that the opportunity was there for grocery businesses, because customers were making fewer trips, but filling bigger baskets. “Our ecommerce sales grew 276 percent. Latest studies show that online grocery shopping has gone up from 3 to 4 percent, to 10 to 15 percent. That shows how much growth in the digital channels is happening, even for grocery, which was considered harder to penetrate into digital channels,” she said.
The customer is – still – king
The panel agreed that fundamental to retail success in the post-COVID world will be to build strong foundations for the customer experience.
It’s still not clear if and to what extent consumers pandemic buying behaviour will stick. Retailers and their suppliers, therefore, need to be ready for whatever turn consumer preferences take.
For Josh White, VP, Omni-Channel Fulfillment and Supply Chain Engineering at CVS Health, it’s all about making customers’ lives easier and simplifying the customer journey.
“I think things will just be a lot more connected, frictionless and seamless,” he said. “Friction is going to be a really important concept. It always has been, but now more so than ever, the reduction of friction is what’s going to define winners and losers in the retail world.”
And while there are concerns over the fate of the high street, he and other panellists agreed that stores can be an opportunity for bridging the physical and the digital worlds. By establishing an omnichannel presence, retailers can provide greater convenience for consumers to buy what they want, when they want, through the channel of their choice.
“In store experiences are turning more and more contactless. Making omnichannel customer experience frictionless, safe, convenient, and personalized will be the driving forces,” agreed Nanavati.
More Innovation than ever
Channels are shifting with consumer preferences - where they buy, and how they buy, has evolved. “The recent events with COVID-19 triggered our consumers into believing that there is more than one way to shop,” said Ed Wong EVP & Chief Digital Officer at Smart & Final.
“The pace of change has accelerated. The opportunity to use the power of data and technology to enhance the customer experience is there now more than ever before,” added Rajeev Kapur, VP of Commercial Transformation at Kimberly-Clark.
Nanavati added: “Things on the roadmap got accelerated beyond imagination. The rate at which new capabilities got added and new ideas got executed is unprecedented. Digital at the forefront is the way to go,” she said.
The panel pointed out that the industry had seen more innovation in the last five months, than in the last five years, and that many retailers had moved more volume in the last four months than they ever had previously.
“Many of our customers have brought up their plans of the next two years and implemented them in the last few months,” said Narayanan. “The crisis actually brought forward immense creativity and productivity. There is an increasing appetite among organizations to drive innovation at scale.”
Data and Algorithms will be indispensable
Technology plays a fundamental part in this customer-centric transformation. Business continuity has accelerated the rollout of digital solutions in recent months, at an unprecedented rate.
But companies need to keep up this momentum, especially when it comes to data and AI.
One area where this has become obvious is forecasting: traditional techniques for gauging demand and controlling inventory didn’t cope when the pandemic struck.
“I think, across the board, retailers are finding that they should have been doubling down on analytical horsepower over the past five years,” admitted White.
Panellists were united in their view that making better, more insightful use of data is a matter of urgency for the sector. In doing so, companies also need to facilitate a seamless flow of data, overcoming the siloes that still exist in many organizations.
And beyond forecasting, data analytics will also be vital to building customer loyalty, as Wong pointed out: “I can type in another URL or hit another link and I’m out of your property and on someone else’s. So, the more a retailer can improve the stickiness and the glue they have with you, the better.”
Adapting to the pace of change across various touchpoints to improve stickiness and customer retention requires a strong focus on data and analytics. “There isn’t any other way to process all of the different footprints and signals that consumers will be leaving, whether it’s in the physical or in the virtual world,” Wong said.
An audience poll during the panel underlined this, with nearly eight in nine stating that technology spend on improving the customer experience would go up in the medium-term.
Whether it is personalization, product development, or forecasting, one important requirement for AI is that it mustn’t stop at the company’s front door. The entire supply chain must be incorporated for a comprehensive view of the complete ecosystem – from the raw material to the end-customer.
Kapur is placing his bets on data and algorithms: “We need to have clean data with algorithms to compute multiple scenarios, and connect these algorithms with the customers, and to conduct advanced analytics at a detailed level to determine where and how we place our bets. That’s the journey we are on, from BI to AI, from clean data to analytics, from insights to actionable information, and the big bet is from actionable information to automation,” he said.
Narayanan believes there is opportunity. “Realizing these opportunities calls for a machine-first enterprise and orchestrating data across the value chain. With the power of technology, we believe in unlocking significant business potential. We at TCS call it the Algorithmic Business”.