In the early 1990’s I was in a Chicago grocery store (Dominick’s) testing out “on cart” product locators with LCD greyscale displays (I assume they didn’t survive the test as they were gone forever after three months). In the late 90’s and early 00’s we ordered groceries for my grandmother from Peapod online and had them delivered and “subscribed.”  In the mid-00’s, I could buy online and pick up in store from Sears. By the early 2010’s I could even return the same way or have the employee put the product in my trunk. 

What is fascinating to me is that much of the innovation and processes that have been achieved in retail over the course of the pandemic had been figured out by variousretailers and tech companies already, in some cases, for well over a decade or more (e.g., BOPIS and other “curb side,” omni-channel driven conveniences). The effect of the pandemic was to expand these innovations across the broader retail and consumer facing sectors faster than most of these companies were doing so themselves naturally or had tried them and found them cost prohibitive.With limited options of interacting with customers though and a technology “back bone” that has continued to rapidly evolve along with the platforms, devices, algorithms and networks necessary to support them, these costs either became necessary or have been reduced to being very manageable for companies when they previously had not.

It is a great time to be embracing this innovation though as the number of vendors, options, and technologies which work with so many of the different unique systems a retailer may have is large. Very importantly, the innovation is not just on the consumer facing side, but it is there for your employees as well. The number of companies I see at Retail Conferences these days dealing with employee engagement, training, task management, compliance, etc., is fantastic, and based on the demos and talking with peers who utilize them, they are genuinely useful tools. So, whether you need the ability to drop ship, schedule customer appointments, provide curbside options, touchless exchanges, training, planogram execution validation, product locating, etc., there’s an app for that on iOS, Android, or even the various propriety and popular devices multiple retailers use. 

One of the keys to being able to provide all this innovation as a provider or embrace it as a retailer is the ability to move massive quantities of data back and forth quickly and relatively easily such that edge devices can collect important information quickly, provide this back to the cloud where more complex computations can be done, and then a proper decision pushed back to the edge device all within a matter of mere milliseconds. Whether it’s a company’s edge device or the consumer’s device itself interacting with your website, our ability to engage our world in a sophisticated way that reflects our care for our customers and employees, is being made easier by the day from pure capabilities perspective.

Where companies need to make sure they’re ready are in two interrelated spaces, data governance and security.  With the proliferation of all these amazing software, apps, devices, capabilities, also comes the proliferation of the data itself and who is handling it.  We have a tremendous responsibility to our customers and employees to ensure that we are doing everything possible to secure the data and treat it ethically. Robust data governance is the foundation of this and unfortunately is also the least glamorous part of any discussions of these various technologies and implementations. As such, it also can receive the least amount of attention which can come back in the form of various problems post-implementation. Be they small problems of leadership asking for reporting on the success of the implementation while having no ability to measure/tie to any financial KPI’s, or something large like a customer data leak. Being “data driven” is not enough for companies to succeed, they must be data literate, ethically minded, and willing to invest the resources to ensure the data is secure and what they need, not just for implementation, but for downstream and reporting needs as well. Companies that do this will be the ones that differentiate themselves from competitors as all of these “advanced” retail interactions and the underlying tech become table stakes.

Creating, acquiring, having data is the easy part, ensuring it is usable, generates value for the company either thru the processes it supports, the measurability it provides, the interactivity for customer and employee it enables, this is what is difficult. 

The tech product leaders will be the ones who enable this most easily for the retailers: theirproduct’s data streams easily available thru secure API’s, event-based interactions, and can send and receive in flexible, but well-defined formats. Having a product that enables this “cool” interaction or capability for a customer or employee and makes the implementation easy, post-implementation and is open to continuous improvement thru easy monitoring makes for a product that CIO’s and operational leaders will champion.