One Ring That Rules Them All

Devangshu Dutta

January 10, 2017

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

Devangshu Dutta

January 21, 2016

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.

Shopping Malls – Start-Off on the Right Foot

Devangshu Dutta

August 19, 2013

If you’re planning to develop a mall, here’s a short-list of key issues you must address:

Fail-proof the business plan by focussing on the customer: Focus on the development of retail brands and not solely on quick returns on investment. The primary responsibility should be that of catering to the consumer catchment and driving footfalls for the retail occupants. The other requirements follow from this simple premise. Also, a tenant-unfriendly revenue model that overloads the tenant with a high rent (whether fixed or as a percentage of sales) leads to a churn in tenants, and in combination with other factors, keeps the best tenants out of the mall making it unattractive to customer as well.

Do a thorough recce of the catchment: Ask questions like “can the catchment support the development in terms of consumer footfall and spending?”, “Is there a connect between the needs of the immediate catchment and the occupants of the mall?”, “Are there too many malls in the catchment area?”

Offer a good occupant mix: You cannot have mall occupants who have little relevance for the target consumer. Also, the retailers must complement each other in a healthy way rather than cannibalise customers and sales from each other.

Ensure good access: Accessibility and connectivity to get the traffic smoothly in and out of the mall is a must; ensure there is adequate parking space.

Avoid undersizing: A small-sized is a straight handicap because it will lack variety, and you run the risk of getting dwarfed by the next big mall that throws its hat into the ring. [However, the specific size can vary depending on the state of development of your own catchment.]

Focus on design: This involves making the mall brands ‘visible’, ensuring appropriate ‘zoning’ in terms of entertainment, multiplexes, kids’ areas, food courts etc. This will result in better customer flow management. Bad design and poor customer flow management within the mall leaves large parts of mall “invisible” to visiting consumers, or improper zoning that confuses customers and breaks up the traffic.

Finally, remember, it’s not so much about the “square feet”, as about the feet that will occupy it! Focus on the consumers that you want visiting the mall and why they should return again and again.

Loyalty – Scheme or Sham?

Devangshu Dutta

December 16, 2008

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!

Devangshu Dutta

November 22, 2008

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”.