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Retailers now need to “always be pivoting.” Here’s three moves keeping them going

For years, retailers have been told that they must embrace a litany of new technologies, trends, and imperatives like online shopping, mobile apps, omnichannel, and digital transformation. In search of growth and stability, retailers adopted many of these, only to realize that for every box they ticked, there was another one waiting.

And then the pandemic hit, along with rising social movements and increasingly harsh weather. Some retailers were more prepared to take on these disruptions than others, which crystallized a new universal truth across the industry: the ability to adapt on the fly became the most important trait to survive and thrive.

Today’s retail landscape has surfaced both existing and new challenges for specialty and department store retailers. Approximately88% of purchases previously occurred within a store environment. Now, it’s closer to 59%, with the remainder done online or through other omni methods. 

With such constant change and upheaval, it can feel like the mantra now is ABP: always be pivoting. 

The big question isn’t just how to maintain constant momentum and agility—it’s how to do it without sapping your workforce, your inventory, or your profits in the process. The pivot is now a given. What matters is how you do it.

Adapting requires a flexible base of technology that allows retailers to shift and scale seamlessly with the needs of the moment. 

They need to be able to leverage real-time insights and enhance customer experiences rapidly, online and in the real world (not to mention the growing hybridization that’s AR and VR). They need to modernize their stores to power engaging consumer and associate experiences. They need to enhance operations for rapid scaling between full operations and digital-only offerings.

To help retailers achieve these goals and more, Google Cloud is honing a trio of essential innovations: demand forecasting that harnesses the power of data analytics and artificial intelligence; enhanced product discovery to improve conversion across channels; and the tools to help create the modern store experience.

In other words, here’s some of the biggest ways we’re ready to help you pivot.

Pivot point 1: Harnessing data and AI for demand forecasting with Vertex AI

One of the greatest challenges for retailers when building organizational flexibility is managing inventory and the supply chain. 

We are in the midst of one of the worst global supply chain crises, stemming from soaring demand and logistics issues brought on by the pandemic. This crisis has only heightened the challenge retailers face when assessing demand and product availability. Even in normal times, mismanagement of inventory can add up to a trillion-dollar problem, according to IHL Group (costing $634 billion in lost sales worldwide each year, while overstocks result in $472 billion in lost revenues due to markdowns). 

On the flipside, optimizing your supply chain can lead to greater profits. For instance, McKinsey predicts that a 10% to 20% improvement in retail supply chain forecasting accuracy is likely to produce a 5% reduction in inventory costs and a 2% to 3% increase in revenues.

Some of the challenges related to demand forecasting include:

Low accuracy leads to excess inventory, missed sales, and pressure on fragile supply chains.

Real drivers of product demand are not included, because large datasets are hard to model using traditional methods.

Poor accuracy for new product launches and products that have sparse or intermittent demand.

Complex models are hard to understand, leading to poor product allocation and low return on investment on promotions.

Different departments use different methods, leading to miscommunication and costly reconciliation errors.

AI-based demand forecasting techniques can help. Vertex AI Forecast supports retailers in maintaining greater inventory flexibility by infusing machine learning into their existing systems. Machine learning and AI-based forecasting models like Vertex AI are able to digest large sets of disparate data, drive analytics and automatically adjust when provided with new information. 

With these machine learning models, retailers can not only incorporate historical sales data, but also use close to real-time data such as marketing campaigns, web actions like a customer clicking the “add to cart” button on a website, local weather forecasts, and much more. 

Pivot point 2: Enhanced product discovery through AI-powered search and recommendations

If customers can’t easily find what they are looking for, whether online or at the store, they will turn to someone else. That’s a simple statement, but one with profound impacts.

In research conducted by The Harris Poll and Google Cloud, we found that over a six month period, 95% of consumers received search results that were not relevant to what they were searching for on a retail website. And roughly 85% of consumers view a brand differently after an unsuccessful search, while 74% say they avoid websites where they’ve experienced search difficulties in the past.

Each year, retailers lose more than $300 billion dollars from search abandonment, or when a consumer searches for a product on a retailer’s website but does not find what they are looking for. Our product discovery solutions help you surface the right products, to the right customers, at the right time. These solutions include: 

Vision Product Search, which is like bringing the augmented reality of Google Lens to a retailer’s own branded mobile app experience. Both shoppers and retail store associates can search for products using an image they’ve photographed or found online and receive a ranked list of similar items.

Recommendations AI, which enables retailers to deliver highly personalized recommendations at scale across channels.

Retail Search, which provides Google-quality search results on a retailer’s own website and mobile applications.

All three are powered by Google Cloud, leveraging Google’s advanced understanding of user context and intent, utilizing technology to deliver a seamless experience to every shopper. With these combined capabilities, retailers are able to reduce search abandonment and improve conversions across their digital properties. 

Pivot point 3: Building the modern store

Stores are no longer places for just browsing and buying. They must be flexible operation centers, ready to pivot to address changing circumstances. The modern store must be multiple things at once: a mini-fulfillment and return center, a recommendation engine, a shopping destination, a fun place to work, and more. 

Just as retail companies had to embrace omnichannel, stores are now becoming omnichannel centers on their own, mixing the digital and physical into a single location. Retailers can use physical stores as a vehicle to deliver superior customer experiences. This will demand heightened levels of collaboration and cooperation between stores, digital, and tech infrastructure teams, building on the agile ways they have worked together.

In many ways, it’s about allowing our physical spaces to function more like digital ones. Google Cloud can help by bringing the scalability, security, and reliability of the cloud to the store, allowing physical locations to upgrade infrastructure and modernize their internal and customer-facing applications. 

Think of it as when a new OS gets released for your phone. It’s the same small, hard box, but the experience can feel radically different. Now, extend that same idea to a digitally enabled store. With the right displays, interfaces, and tools at a given retail location, the team only needs to send an over-the-air update to create radically fresh experiences, ranging from sales displays to fulfillment or employee engagement.

Such an approach can enable streamlined experiences for both customers and store associates. For instance, when it comes to the modern store’s evolving role as a fulfillment or return center, cloud solutions can help drive efficiency in stores through automation of ordering, replenishment, and fulfillment of omnichannel order selection.  

Similar tools for personalized product discovery online can be applied to customers in the store, helping them to browse and explore, or even create a tailored shopping experience. 

The impact of store associates can be maximized by equipping them with technology to provide expertise that drives value-added customer service, as well as increasing productivity in stores by streamlining operations, thus lowering overhead cost. At the register, customers should be able to enjoy frictionless checkout while ensuring reliable, accurate, secure transactions.

Google Cloud can help retailers transform

The ability to adapt and pivot to meet today’s changing consumer needs requires that retailers rely on modern tools to obtain operational flexibility. We believe that every company can be a tech company. That every decision is data driven. That every store is physical and digital all at once. That every worker is a tech worker. 

Google Cloud works with retailers to help them solve their most challenging problems. We have the unique ability to handle massive amounts of unstructured data, in addition to advanced capabilities in AI and ML. Our products and solutions help retailers focus on what’s most important—from improving operations to capturing digital and omnichannel revenue.

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