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One Ring That Rules Them All

In this piece I’ll just focus on one aspect of technology – artificial intelligence or AI – that is likely to shape many aspects of the retail business and the consumer’s experience over the coming years.

To be able to see the scope of its potential all-pervasive impact we need to go beyond our expectations of humanoid robots. We also need to understand that artificial intelligence works on a cycle of several mutually supportive elements that enable learning and adaptation. The terms “big data” and “analytics” have been bandied about a lot, but have had limited impact so far in the retail business because it usually only touches the first two, at most three, of the necessary elements.

Elements in Operationalizing Big Data and AI

“Big data” models still depend on individuals in the business taking decisions and acting based on what is recommended or suggested by the analytics outputs, and these tend to be weak links which break the learning-adaptation chain. Of course, each of these elements can also have AI built in, for refinement over time.

Certainly retailers with a digital (web or mobile) presence are in a better position to use and benefit from AI, but that is no excuse for others to “roll over and die”. I’ll list just a few aspects of the business already being impacted and others that are likely to be in the future.

  1. Know the customer: The most obvious building block is the collection of customer data and teasing out patterns from it. This has been around so long that it is surprising what a small fraction of retailers have an effective customer database. While we live in a world that is increasingly drowning in information, most retailers continue to collect and look at very few data points, and are essentially institutionally “blind” about the customers they are serving.
    However, with digital transactions increasing, and compute and analytical capability steadily become less expensive and more flexible via the cloud, information streams from not only the retailers’ own transactions but multiple sources can be tied together to achieve an ever-better view of the customer’s behaviour.
  2. Prediction and Response: Not only do we expect “intelligence” to identify, categorise and analyse information streaming in from the world better, but to be able to anticipate what might happen and also to respond appropriately.
    Predictive analytics have been around in the retail world for more than a decade, but are still used by remarkably few retailers. At the most basic level, this can take the form of unidirectional reminders and prompts which help to drive sales. Remember the anecdote of Target (USA) sending maternity promotions based on analytics to a young lady whose family was unaware of her pregnancy?
    However, even automated service bots are becoming more common online, that can interact with customers who have queries or problems to address, and will get steadily more sophisticated with time. We are already having conversations with Siri, Google, Alexa and Cortana – why not with the retail store?
  3. Visual and descriptive recognition: We can describe to another human being a shirt or dress that we want or call for something to match an existing garment. Now imagine doing the same with a virtual sales assistant which, powered by image recognition and deep learning, brings forward the appropriate suggestions. Wouldn’t that reduce shopping time and the frustration that goes with the fruitless trawling through hundreds of items?
  4. Augmented and virtual reality: Retailers and brands are already taking tiny steps in this area which I described in another piece a year ago (“Retail Integrated”) so I won’t repeat myself. Augmented reality, supported by AI, can help retail retain its power as an immersive and experiential activity, rather than becoming purely transaction-driven.

On the consumer-side, AI can deliver a far higher degree of personalisation of the experience than has been feasible in the last few decades. While I’ve described different aspects, now see them as layers one built on the other, and imagine the shopping experience you might have as a consumer. If the scenario seems as if it might be from a sci-fi movie, just give it a few years. After all, moving staircases and remote viewing were also fantasy once.

On the business end it potentially offers both flexibility and efficiency, rather than one at the cost of the other. But we’ll have to tackle that area in a separate piece.

(Also published in the Business Standard.)

Hyperlocals, Aggregators: Developing the Ecosystem

Aggregator models and hyperlocal delivery, in theory, have some significant advantages over existing business models.

Unlike an inventory-based model, aggregation is asset-light, allowing rapid building of critical mass. A start-up can tap into existing infrastructure, as a bridge between existing retailers and the consumer. By tapping into fleeting consumption opportunities, the aggregator can actually drive new demand to the retailer in the short term.

A hyperlocal delivery business can concentrate on understanding the nuances of a customer group in a small geographic area and spend its management and financial resources to develop a viable presence more intensively.

However, both business models are typically constrained for margins, especially in categories such as food and grocery. As volume builds up, it’s feasible for the aggregator to transition at least part if not the entire business to an inventory-based model for improved fulfilment and better margins. By doing so the aggregator would, therefore, transition itself to being the retailer.

Customer acquisition has become very expensive over the last couple of years, with marketplaces and online retailers having driven up advertising costs – on top of that, customer stickiness is very low, which means that the platform has to spend similar amounts of money to re-acquire a large chunk of customers for each transaction.

The aggregator model also needs intensive recruitment of supply-side relationships. A key metric for an aggregator’s success is the number of local merchants it can mobilise quickly. After the initial intensive recruitment the merchants need to be equipped to use the platform optimally and also need to be able to handle the demand generated.

Most importantly, the acquisitions on both sides – merchants and customers – need to move in step as they are mutually-reinforcing. If done well, this can provide a higher stickiness with the consumer, which is a significant success outcome.

For all the attention paid to the entry and expansion of multinational retailers and nationwide ecommerce growth, retail remains predominantly a local activity. The differences among customers based on where they live or are located currently and the immediacy of their needs continue to drive diversity of shopping habits and the unpredictability of demand. Services and information based products may be delivered remotely, but with physical products local retailers do still have a better chance of servicing the consumer.

What has been missing on the part of local vendors is the ability to use web technologies to provide access to their customers at a time and in a way that is convenient for the customers. Also, importantly, their visibility and the ability to attract customer footfall has been negatively affected by ecommerce in the last 2 years. With penetration of mobile internet across a variety of income segments, conditions are today far more conducive for highly localised and aggregation-oriented services. So a hyperlocal platform that focusses on creating better visibility for small businesses, and connecting them with customers who have a need for their products and services, is an opportunity that is begging to be addressed.

It is likely that each locality will end up having two strong players: a market leader and a follower. For a hyperlocal to fit into either role, it is critical to rapidly create viability in each location it targets, and – in order to build overall scale and continued attractiveness for investors – quickly move on to replicate the model in another location, and then another. They can become potential acquisition targets for larger ecommerce companies, which could acquire to not only take out potential competition but also to imbibe the learnings and capabilities needed to deal with demand microcosms.

High stake bets are being placed on this table – and some being lost with business closures – but the game is far from being played out yet.

The Relationship between Consumers and Brands

Panel Discussion moderated by Mr. Devangshu Dutta, Chief Executive, Third Eyesight at the Indian Retail Congress 2015 (17-18 April 2015). The panel included Mr. Manish Mandhana (Managing Director of Mandhana Industries with the brand Being Human), Mr. Sanjay Warke (Country Head of Toshiba India), Mr. Tanmay Kumar (Chief Financial Officer of Burger King India), Mr. Kinjal Shah (Chief Executive Officer of Crossword Bookstores) and Mr. Ranjan Sharma (Chief Information Officer of Bestseller India, with the brands Vero Moda, Only, Jack & Jones).

Retail India and Etail India conference - Manesar - 2015-04-17

Are luxury salespeople nicer in a downturn?

There’s some speculation that salespeople in luxury stores are being asked to become more friendly, so as not to turn away and turn off potential customers.

But I think it isn’t just them. I think as the economy slows, possibly everyone might become less abrasive and nicer to each other – less business around so you don’t want to turn off the spenders no matter how they’re dressed – “a king dressed as a beggar” is a good simile.

Actually that reminds me of a story someone told about 20 years ago about an Indian farmer walking into a car showroom and being treated patronizingly by the salesman. The salesman saw a more urbane customer walk in and handed the farmer off to a less agressive colleague, only to see 4 cars being driven off by the farmer’s sons after an all CASH payment.

Maybe the image is not evocative as Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman”, but still a pretty powerful one, nevertheless.

“Customer-Centric” – More than a Buzzword

Amazon was among the few US retailers last week to report any growth in the fourth quarter of 2008. There are, possibly, as many opinions about why Amazon has apparently bucked the recession as there are business analysts observing the sector.

I’ve shopped on Amazon.com since the year they launched. Every experience has been completely satisfactory, some delightful. On some occasions Amazon has picked my pocket – made me spend on stuff that I wouldn’t have bought otherwise, by their very helpful suggestions of what others had bought while they were browsing my selections. On other occasions it has saved me money, time and heartburn by providing comprehensive customer reviews at a click.

In my experience, Amazon’s sustainable advantage is their customer-orientation – the technology, the supply chain, the design – everything is geared to making the buying experience as good as possible. A Retail 101 principle that many other retailers – online and offline – seem to ignore every day.

Loyalty – Scheme or Sham?

A keystone of a retailer’s business is the loyalty that customers show in shopping at his or her store.

Loyal customers help to sustain a basic level of sales and reduce the need for expensive broadcast-style marketing spending that the store may otherwise have to do in order to keep the traffic and business flowing. This is as true for chain-stores as it is for independent mom-and-pop stores.

Therefore, as competition increases along with the number of stores selling the same products within a common catchment, retaining the loyalty of the customer becomes crucial, both in terms of strength of relationship (which is reflected in how much of the total spend the customer spends at the specific store) as well as the duration of the relationship.

In some parts of the more developed markets regulation may prevent the overcrowding of grocery stores and supermarkets. However, in markets such as India, one can see as many as four or five mini-supermarkets coming up on barely a kilometre along a busy street, before you even count the numerous kiranawalas. How can a store ensure a continued loyal custom from a certain share of that catchment?

Managers at modern chain stores may draw some comfort from studies which suggest that customers with higher incomes tend to be more “loyal” than customers with lower incomes. Since Indian chain stores tend to be targeted on high-income customers when compared to the traditional kiranawala, they may benefit from an intrinsically more loyal base of customers.

The variety of factors behind this “loyalty” may essentially boil down to the fact that with rising incomes the perceived benefit – lower prices, potentially better products or service – from comparing alternative stores may be outweighed by the perceived cost (time) of seeking these options and the personal adjustment involved in shopping in an unfamiliar environment. (Or, perhaps, to put it more bluntly: “rich customers couldn’t be bothered”?)

However, as the number of competing offers increases, promotional noise draws the consumer’s attention to benefits they might be missing out on, whether this is through flyers in the mailbox, kiosks set up near the consumer’s primary store, or even a full-blown ad campaign across multiple media. With every new offer or promotion, there is a temptation to try out an unfamiliar retailer.

This is more acute during recessionary times, when just about every competitor is shouting out deals to lure the customer to at least step into their store. And don’t think that high income customers are immune from the “toothpaste-discount” bait. During such times, whether they acknowledge it or not, everyone is down-shifting. It is at such times that loyalty is truly called upon. And it is also at such times when retailers start to think of loyalty schemes.

Most loyalty schemes are focussed on the objective of retaining existing customers through the use of incentives that are available only to loyalty programme members. They will ask a customer to provide some personal and contact information, and will provide some reference – a set of coupons to be redeemed during future purchases, or a card (index, swipe or smart) – that must be presented during subsequent transactions. In almost all cases, there is an attempt at getting the customer to return to the store because, as we all know, when we step into a store to redeem anything, almost without exception we end up shelling out more money than the redemption is worth. Since the value of the cash-back equivalent can be anywhere between 1 and 10 per cent (sometimes higher) customers are happy with the bribe, while the store is happy to ring up the additional sales.

However, it is surprising – or perhaps not – how many loyalty schemes turn into shams. In many such cases, the true benefits and the liabilities during the life cycle of the loyalty programme or of the customer’s relationship with the store have not been considered deeply enough. We all have multiple examples from our personal lives, which offer valuable lessons on such shambolic “loyalty schemes”. For instance:

  • An oil company’s “membership card” that you pay for, whose points can never be redeemed because you never get the points statement nor a list of rewards, and the last time you see the card is when the petrol pump attendant takes it with the promise to check the status with the company.
  • “Reward points” which offer a customer a second-rate bag or an uncertain brand of electrical gadget for points PLUS a cash amount that would be the equivalent of what you might spend with a pavement retailer buying a similar item.
  • A credit card that looks attractive with discounts at certain merchant establishments, until you discover that someone who doesn’t hold that card is getting the same benefit even on cash payment.

Very often we find that a loyalty scheme has been conceived by an executive in charge of advertising to get the message out more cheaply (?) and focussed on a set of frequent customers. There is little link with the other parts of the operation, such as merchandising, store planning, or even promotion management, and certainly no influence. Thus, a second and potentially more powerful objective – using customer shopping data to tighten merchandising and improve the targeting of promotions – is virtually ignored.

Some companies have decided that managing a loyalty programme would offer lower benefits than the cost of maintaining the scheme, and decide to pass on the amount to the consumer directly in the form of lower prices. However, given the times, and the prospective goldmine of consumer purchase information that consumers willingly provide through such transactions (despite all vocal concerns about privacy) I would expect loyalty schemes to mushroom in the next few years.

The fact is, whatever our income levels, evolution has deemed that we become creatures of habit. Once a certain path has been followed successfully, a berry has been eaten safely, a transaction has been made satisfactorily, we are inclined to return to it again and again.

Trust, predictability and precedence are huge factors in developing loyalty, and when translated into the modern life of shopping (especially for food and groceries), this translates into the phenomenon that has been called first store (or primary store) loyalty. This can lead to as much as almost 70 per cent of grocery shopping being carried out at one store. Typically consumers will have a strong secondary store, and the balance grocery shopping would be split between multiple stores based on product availability, convenience and opportunity, deals and other factors.

But just because customers are genetically wired for loyalty to the familiar, the retailer should not treat this loyalty with contempt. Or even laziness. Because that can tip over the loyalty scheme into being a loyalty sham. And that is it only one letter away from “scam” – a dangerous label in these times of the consumer-activist.

Sorry, didn’t mean to wish you well!

Whatever you might say about “customer relationship management”, you can’t fault some companies for trying.

Only, sometimes they just try too hard.

For instance, one bank (that shall remain unnamed) sent an email with birthday wishes WEEKS after the event. You could laugh at the mistake, blame it on a fault with the IT system, whatever.

But what do you do when the very next day they follow it up with an emailed apology that says:

“Dear Customer

We apologize for inadvertently e-mailing a Birthday wish to you. Kindly accept our sincere apology for the inconvenience caused to you.

We look forward to your continued patronage and wish you the best at all times.

With Warm Regards

XYZ Bank”

Sometimes customer relationships should remain managed in an understated and old-fashioned way. Otherwise the “WOW Factor” can turn into the “WHA…?! Factor”.

DIG To Find Hidden Gold

BOOK REVIEW: HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT: Erich Joachimsthaler

In the midst of extensive or frequent civil works, fluorescent high-visibility clothing contributes to the invisibility of the individual, and can serve as a superb disguise. Similarly, in the midst of extensive research and in-depth analyses, basic insights can go unnoticed.

Erich Joachimsthaler has plenty of examples in his book Hidden in Plain Sight to drive home the point that attention to stuff that is not so obvious to competition can lead to brilliant success such as Sony’s growth through innovative products (the WalkmanT, for one) that met unexpressed consumer needs. Conversely, an inability to spot this can bring even the leaders down, illustrated once again by Sony’s loss of leadership in mobile personal entertainment to Apple’s iPod.

The challenge for companies is to uncover the hidden opportunities by looking into their business from the outside rather than the usual inside-outwards view, and by accurately defining the ecosystem of demand. For most management professionals, this will be harder than it seems.

The exercise begins with the question, “Why didn’t we think of that?” This is intended to remind the reader of how the obvious escapes attention as we sink deeper and deeper into complex analysis and in developing ever more complicated scenarios. And Joachimsthaler sets out a framework that he believes can help larger companies to innovate in a structured way.

Of course, the reader may feel differently, and quote George Bernard Shaw who divided the world into two kinds of people, the reasonable and the unreasonable, and credited innovation to the latter. Or one may agree with Henry Ford who, apparently, felt that customers did not really know what they wanted. He is reported to have quipped: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said, ‘A faster horse'”

Yes, at the cutting edge, innovation may seem to be more about the innovator’s creative desire to do something different, and less about “meeting customer needs”. Yet, it is the unmet and, more importantly, unexpressed customer needs, that offer the greatest source of competitive advantage.

This is why innovation seems to spring more from small companies, or companies that are started up around a specific idea that is unique or new. In such a small company or a start-up, typically the founder/innovator/inventor is drawn from the same pool as the target customer. Therefore, while they may be addressing a need they feel acutely, the innovators are unconsciously plugged into their customer’s unmet/unexpressed needs. There are seldom any silos; the whole team is generally focussed on the one problem to be solved.

However, as companies grow larger, functional specialisation emerges — division of labour based on skill-set is deemed to be a more efficient way of doing things. The design folk design based on “trends”, the marketing folk market as they know best, and the manufacturing folk produce to specification and the “demand” generated.

With this speciality of skills taking over, there is a growing disconnect between their efforts to dig for insight and the gold that is “hidden in plain sight”. While data is available in abundance, real knowledge is scarce, and insight just gets buried in well-structured processes and hand-offs between functional silos.

This trend has only accelerated in the past 15-20 years with pervasive information technology that enables the mundane operational process to the most strategic. Never before have management teams been so focussed on information and analyses. As businesses grow, data warehousing and data mining are defined as the competitive cutting edge, pushed along by interested parties (including IT solution providers, but that is another book!).

However, in reality, excessive information is increasingly passed off as knowledge. An inward focus on the management team”s own objectives is often disguised as insight gained on the customer or the market. Functional specialists analyse the market, the latent needs and the gaps in their own way, and if the company is lucky to have some generalists, some of those dots get joined to form a more complete picture.

It is in reminding management of this reality that Joachimsthaler’s book provides a tremendous service. It presents a well thought out model named, curiously enough, DIG – short for Demand-First Innovation and Growth. The three elements laid out sequentially begin with a framework for defining the demand landscape, identifying the opportunity space within it, and then creating a strategic blueprint for action.

Joachimsthaler’s process to define the demand landscape requires managers to put themselves in the customer’ shoes – a process demonstrated with examples from Proctor and Gamble and Pepsi”s Frito Lay. Using the customer’s goals, actions, priorities (there’s the “GAP”), needs and frustrations, demand clusters can be developed and filled out with additional research. The strategic fit between these demand clusters and the brand can then feed into the next steps of identifying the opportunity space.

The filters, or lenses, as the author calls them, are the “eye of the customer”, the “eye of the market”; and the “eye of the industry”. At every step, assumptions and presumptions need to be challenged. Using these lenses, the sweet spot or spots and the growth platforms can be identified, and extrapolated into the strategy. On the downside, the book is clearly about a framework, which may have been best detailed in an article, rather than being stretched over a book.

The author does stress at one point that it is not about “brainstorming”, but about structured thinking. However, he seems to do this in a tone that suggests brainstorming as something vaguely distasteful due to the lack of directional structure.

While examples from the companies studied keep the text alive, yet in places one struggles to correlate the examples with the framework. Indeed, there may well be too much structure to this book, and not enough examples of how inter-disciplinary thinking and functioning can actually produce sustained innovation.

Understanding the model itself can be a fairly involved process. The best way to tackle it may be to approach it as a project, and use the DIG framework as a how-to guide for a real problem. If you are a structured, methodical, sequential kind of manager and possibly work in a large company, the book could provide tools to put that thinking to work for innovation in a team. On the other hand, if you are more of a “people person”, you may want to leave this book alone. [For more, here’s the book on Amazon.]

Developing Customer Loyalty

A few years ago when I was called upon to make a presentation about customer loyalty, I ran into this brick wall of, “Do loyalty programs work or don’t they?”

The way around the wall was to not look for a black or white answer. Some programs work and some don’t. The difference, I found, was in the degree of impact on core operations (e.g. product selection, displays, pricing etc.) – i.e. how these were fine-tuned from the feedback and other information collection from the loyalty program.

What was certainly clear is that we can clearly differentiate between loyalty that is “bought” (discounts, freebies, loyalty points etc.) vs. loyalty that is “earned” (i.e. you attend carefully to what the customer is saying she wants, and you make sure that you go all out to provide that).

The hotel and airline industry, where well-structured loyalty programs have their roots, depended heavily on buying loyalty. Interestingly, these are now proving to be long-term liabilities, which initially led airlines to put an expiration date and is now leading them to de-value the mileage points (just like a country would devalue its currency!) – thus customers would need more points to make the same trip.

On the other hand, those retailers, hotels or airlines that have learned from their loyal / club / elite customers, have made sure that their offer is constantly value-added, and in some cases constantly differentiated.

In most markets, the top criteria for a consumer to select a store are operational (location of the store, availability of product, range of merchandise, pricing, etc. etc.), and often there is a huge gap between what the consumer expects and what the retailer serves up. In that context, a loyalty program is like applying band-aid to a fracture!

Does this all mean that all “bought loyalty” is useless and that loyalty programs don’t work? Not at all! Retailers can certainly use loyalty schemes to identify high value customers and cultivate them through ongoing exchange of information, and also reward customers for their purchase behaviour. But building and retaining relationships with customers and increasing the share of customer spending in-store is something that can only be delivered by better operations.

We need to reconsider the motivation to have a loyalty program. “Loyalty” schemes’ primary benefit is not loyalty, but a basis of building relationships with individual customers in gathering “Purchase Trend and Product Information” and in achieving better focus and targeting. These need to be used to improve operational effectiveness which produce loyalty – product focus and a service customization opportunity.