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Retail 2.019: Navigating by Customer Experience

Do you have this feeling that 2018 went by a little too quickly? Well, however quick it seemed, it was certainly momentous for retail in India.

If 2016 was marked by the shock of demonetization, and 2017 by the pains of GST implementation, 2018 highlighted two threads – the obvious convergence of the online and offline world that had been ignored for far too long, and the interest of foreign capital in India’s consumer world.

Walmart bought India’s loss-making ecommerce leader for an eye-popping US$ 20.8 billion valuation, while ecommerce giant Amazon injecting equity into Shoppers Stop, bought Aditya Birla’s More grocery chain (49 per cent through a back-end entity), and held discussions with Future Group to acquire 9.5 per cent in Future Retail. There were rumours of a mega joint venture between Reliance Retail and China’s Alibaba, and media also reported Japan’s Softbank looking at ploughing US$200 million into Firstcry. Both rivals Amazon and Alibaba were reported to be looking at Spencer’s, one of India’s oldest retail chains currently owned by the RP-Sanjiv Goenka group.

Videos of the crush of curious crowds at India’s first, much anticipated Ikea went viral, and the company said it planned to open 40 locations over the next few years, upping its earlier projection of 25. Chinese retailer Miniso basically came out of nowhere and claimed to have clocked sales of ?700 crores in the very first year in the country.

But along with these cross-border “big bangs” we saw domestic confidence also quietly resurging. Indian retailers are not cowering before large foreign retailers and expensive ecommerce advertising splashes; today they are less defensive about their own prospects than they were two years ago. There is also a growing interest among entrepreneurs and corporates to create new retail businesses, which augers well for the diversity of competition and freshness of offerings in the market.

Going into 2019, one thing I can say with certainty is that the weather, economic and political – both in India and elsewhere – will be unpredictable, and might even turn stormy. Externally, retailers should “expect the unexpected”. To ensure that the business remains on track, however rough the track becomes, retailers must centre all major strategies and decisions on the customer. A theme that has been around for centuries, it is surprising how much it gets ignored in this most customer-facing business.

Retailers tend to divide customers into rigid segments. My suggestion would be to look at customers through the behaviour and experience lens and also recognise that the same customer behaves differently at different times and in different contexts – in effect there are no hard boundaries between “segments”.

It is often emphasised is that Indian consumers are “deal-seeking”. I don’t think we should treat this as a uniquely Indian thing: all consumers look for value-reassurance in unpredictable times and in uncertain conditions. Also remember that even in value-seeking, experience still rules. Retailers and brands that are solely focussing on price or price+feature comparisons are turning their business into a commodity. They are missing the long game: of defining the customer’s experience from the first moment of brand contact to the purchase and beyond.

In 2019, if you want to focus on a single competitive strategy, it would be this: for stickiness and sustainability, think about the customer’s experience, and actively design it, in every environment where the customer connects with you.

Lastly, technology is transformative, but tends to get restricted to being the contrast between ecommerce and physical retail. Indian retailers need to embrace technology in all forms, from using the zillions of transactions within the business and with the customer for developing actionable knowledge, to automating processes where unnecessary cost or time makes the business inefficient.

Having said that, keep the previous rule in mind when deploying at customer-facing technology – make customer-interfacing technology as invisible or intuitive as possible. When in doubt, learn from one of the leaders in the sector, Amazon: its 1-click ordering patent 20 years ago gave it a huge advantage over competitors, and it is now aiming to replicate the same seamless, friction-free behaviour physically with its Dash button. Or pick cues even from younger fashion businesses like Rebecca Minkoff, whose focus is on ease and convenience. The key reason for adopting technology is to remove friction for the customer and for processes that serve the customer.

I have no doubt that 2019 will be eventful – let the customer experience be the guiding light to keep our businesses off the rocks and afloat.

(Published in the Financial Express on 4 January 2019, under the title “Retail in 2019: Need for stronger brand-customer connections that go beyond purchase“)

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.)

India Opening Up to Commercial Greenhouse Farming

greenhouse cultivation

Horticulture production in India has been surpassing the production of food grains for many years. In 2014-15, the total production of horticultural produce was estimated by the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers Welfare, Ministry of Agriculture to be approximately 281 million tonnes as against 252 million tonnes of food grain production and 275 million tonnes of oilseeds.

Horticulture and floriculture have result in growing foreign earnings, and India’s domestic market is also growing. In fact the demand for many types of vegetables and fruits which are not native to India such as lettuce, broccoli, gherkins, as well as for exotic flowers such as orchids, gerberas, carnations, is soaring. These crops were initially being cultivated only for export, but are now being bought by the urban population within India as well, as a result of growing familiarity with other cultures, and shifts in cuisines and lifestyles.

Many of these crops require specific climatic conditions which are not available in all parts of India, hence, cultivating them in controlled environments is a preferred option. Other than providing them a hospitable environment, the yield of the crop can be significantly better and availability can be all-year round, providing better market prices in the off-season. Greenhouses can be used by farmers for years to grow and sell exotic vegetables and other high-value commodities. Moreover, greenhouses help reduce the expenditure on pesticides by warding off insects and pests, many of which are carriers of viral and other infections. There is, therefore, considerable merit to extending the area under this system of cultivation, for the benefit of both producers and consumers.

While greenhouses have existed for more than one and a half centuries in various parts of the world, in India use of greenhouse technology started only during 1980’s and it was mainly used for research activities. The commercial utilization of greenhouses started from the late-1980s and with the introduction of the Government’s liberalization policies and development initiatives, several businesses were set up as 100 per cent export oriented units. Now many progressive farming organisations and individual farmers are using varied levels of technology in order to control the environment in which agriculture is done.

Although, there is an upfront capital cost involved in the setting up of a greenhouse, the scale of the greenhouse and proper management helps in yielding viable results. Most of the greenhouse projects in India at this point of time are on landholdings of up to 1 acre. However interest is seen to be growing towards projects of larger landholdings. Capital costs per acre range from Rs. 15 lakhs for a basic green house with simple techniques to control temperature and humidity, to Rs. 1.5 crore for automated greenhouses with superior humidity and temperature control, more closely managed water and nutrient dispersal etc.

Protected cultivation is one the important interventions of the National Horticulture Mission. Various patterns of assistance in the form of subsidies (ranging up to 50% of the cost of setting up the structures) have been devised by the government to encourage farmers to engage with this form of cultivation.

To encourage cultivation of vegetables under controlled atmosphere, Punjab government has empanelled five firms to assist farmers to set up polyhouses and polynet houses in their fields. The state government will provide subsidy on the greenhouse structures erected by these firms.
In Khammam, Telangana, the Horticulture Department is readying two poly-house demonstration units to popularise greenhouse technology and help farmers take up cultivation of high yielding vegetables round the year under controlled weather conditions.

Projects have already been taken up in Telangana, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh ranging from feasibility studies of green house facilities and distribution halls for grading, sorting and packing to designing and setting up of green houses for breeding of rice and other crops and cultivation of tomatoes, strawberries, capsicum, cucumbers and lettuce.

For higher end, larger scale farms, Indian growers are also exploring technology from Europe. For instance, the Netherlands is the traditional exporter of greenhouse grown flowers and vegetables all over the world. The Dutch greenhouse industry is one of the most advanced in the world, and has now also become a provider of technology and support for the development of greenhouse cultivation around the world. Advanced technology solutions include climate sensors, air treatment devices, and software support.

However, success doesn’t only depend on equipment. Organisations such as Koppert provide biological solutions for natural pest control, natural pollination and seed treatment, to not only improve the quality and yield of the produce, but also make it safer.

There are many Indian as well as international organisations providing greenhouse solutions ranging from materials, technology and project consultancy. In the coming years it is expected that India’s rich agricultural, horticultural and relatively newer floricultural expertise will get enhanced and further competitive with the adoption of greenhouse cultivation to feed the burgeoning global and domestic demand.

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.

Retail Integrated – the Best of Both Worlds

Retailers seem to be fighting a losing battle against the growth of ecommerce, and it is only the nature of the shopping activity, especially for fashion – interactive, social, and immersive as it is – that has kept many retailers relevant and in business.

However, the defensive stance is changing, and now they’re using technology to get the customers back into the store. Forward-thinking retailers are reimagining trial rooms, stores, business processes and entire business models. It’s not a physical versus virtual approach but an approach that integrates both sides. The idea is to create a more immersive experience than pure digital retail can be, using some of the same tools as ecommerce.

It is important to remember that the whole retail environment is a “suggestive” environment. Due to cost and other operational factors most retailers are ill-equipped to provide appropriate levels of excitement, suggestion and support during the browsing and buying process.

For many, the simplest move could be screens serving up their catalogue to customers within the store. For instance, US department store chain Kohl’s has initiated connected fitting rooms that identify products the customer is carrying, and bring up not only those items onscreen, but additional colours and sizes that are available. If the customer wants an alternative, a message goes to a sales associate who can fetch the requested option. Macy’s and Bloomingdales are using tablets in the trial rooms, while Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Rebecca Minkoff are attempting to boost their fashion sales using magic mirrors to provide similar enablement. These devices and the processes empower and involve the customer far more, while leaving store staff free for other activities.

A step up, Puma is using “virtual trials” for its apparel products by having a customer take images of herself in specific positions, and then mapping styles on their own images to visualise how they might look. While this needs more work and investment, this is still only a more developed product browser technique from the customer’s point-of-view.

The next level, augmented reality trials and virtual fit, are significantly more sophisticated at creating simulations of a selected garment image draping and falling on the customer’s body even as he or she moves normally. Imaging and texturing of the simulated garments is technically challenging and expensive, repeated for each new style and option. The imaging also needs to mimic the “wearer’s” movements. Nevertheless, retailers such as Polo Ralph Lauren are finding it worth their while to investigate these new technologies, as these reintroduce the much needed “theatre” that are integral to a successful retailer.

For the customer virtualisation expands the number of items “taken” into the trial room, and creates more convenient product discovery. More products can be seen in the same shopping time, and sharing of images and videos with friends and family, engages them in the shopping process as well.

For retailers, the benefits multiply. Inventory can be optimised, and there is reduced handling and shrinkage. Even without sales associates, it is feasible to prompt for alternatives and related products, improving conversion and transaction values, reducing space and costs of physical trial rooms, and increasing the number of customers serviced especially at peak traffic times.

A phenomenal advantage is the data captured that is relevant while the customer is in the store, but which can be linked to future promotions. Valuable intelligence, such as what is being tried and for how long, can help the retailer to quickly gauge demand patterns, and adjust pricing and promotions. Normally retailers only capture sales transactions (post-fact), and miss out the rich information on in-store behaviour that etailers do collect and analyse.

However, massive hurdles to virtualisation remain, including data input accuracy, product accuracy, and the technical capabilities of the tech solution adopted. A bigger concern is whether technology is intuitive and seamless, or whether it gets in the way of the shopping experience. Further, consumers do have privacy concerns about the images and other data collected.

Its important to remind ourselves that, on its own, technology is just a novelty – huge transformation of business processes, organisational capabilities and behaviours must happen as well.

That is perhaps the biggest mountain to climb.