The role of information and communications technology (ICT) in the retail sector has grown significantly over the past few years. Enterprises are increasingly deploying various technology-driven solutions to streamline operations, improve business efficiency and provide better customer experience. As customer comfort takes centre stage, trends like multichannel retail, hyper-personalisation and automation are redefining the business requirements of retail enterprises. Technological advancements in the sector have provided various benefits; going forward, the adoption of new technologies like cloud, artificial intelligence (AI), augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) and internet of things (IoT) across Indian retail companies is set to reach higher levels. IT heads of leading retail enterprises talk about the key ICT trends shaping the retail sector, the challenges involved and the way forward…

What are the key emerging technology trends shaping the retail industry?

Gazal Alagh, Co-founder, MamaEarth

Ghazal Alagh

The rapid evolution of technology has disrupted almost every industry and retail is no exception. Some of the key emerging technology trends driving the retail industry are hyper-personalisation powered by AI/machine learning, omnichannel adaptation, cloud stations, conversational commerce, AR/VR, chatbots, visual analytics, cognitive computing and IoT.

Kunal Mehta, Head IT, Lifestyle Business, Raymond Limited

Kunal Mehta

In today’s times, competition between offline and online retailers is getting fierce. Customer/Brand loyalty is depleting and retailers are struggling to meet targets and keep customers engaged. In such a scenario, retailers are adopting technologies to enhance customer experience, introduce personalised shopping and provide instant gratification to customers. AI, machine learning and 3D imaging are some of the fast growing technologies that are being implemented.

Manish Saini, COO, e-commerce, Ferns N Petals

Manish Saini

  • Mobile: More than 60 per cent of our consumers are on mobiles during the discovery phase. While desktop still beats mobile devices as the primary medium for making e-commerce purchases, it would soon be replaced by mobile phones. Global e-commerce trends indicate that mobile devices will be central to the discovery, research and purchase of goods.
  • Product visualisation, AR and VR: Product visuals have evolved from small, hard-to-view images to multiple images in different views along with the zooming feature. In addition, customers can now upload images. Recent technological advances in 3D, AR and VR are poised to further change the way products are displayed. AR is a technology that superimposes digital images on a user’s view of the real world through a mobile device. It is changing the way consumers visualise the products. With VR, users “enter” an immersive virtual world using a VR headset and compatible 360 video. It allows clients to virtually experience a product before they make a purchase.

What are the key ICT and telecom solutions being used by your company?

Ghazal Alagh

Customer satisfaction is our prime goal and we are using digital technologies to improve our relationship with customers. To create an ultimate omnichannel presence for our customers, we are using a combination of modern services such as ZendDesk, Ameyo and Myoperator. These cloud-based services are used for various purposes right from call management to the generation of reports for business development.

Kunal Mehta

We are using a mix of technologies. We have mobile applications for learning and development of our retail staff across geographies, and SuccessFactors and other tools for our corporate employees. We are evaluating various productivity and social engagement tools to improve employee engagement, communication, productivity and alignment across all levels.

Manish Saini

We use ICT for three different purposes:

  • Customer interaction: We ensure that customers enjoy a seamless experience with our brand. For this, we have invested in cloud infrastructure, IT services, security systems, IP telephony, billing and recording systems. Big data analytics has not only enabled us to improve customer satisfaction by personalising offerings, but has also helped in identifying and eliminating unnecessary costs.
  • Scheduling for manpower and jobs: We use HR and payroll software to automate HR processes, improve employee management and optimise recruitment and reduce employee turnover.
  • Communication between management and staff: Telecommunication, videoconferencing and email software has enabled us to maintain an open line of communication. This has improved employee productivity and efficiency.

All these tools have enabled us to raise our top line while simultaneously reducing the bottom line.

How are trends like multichannel retail, hyper-personalisation and automation affecting the business requirements of retail enterprises?

Ghazal Alagh

Not long back shopping meant going to a nearby physical store, but with the massive popularity of smartphones and significant technological advancements, shopping has become more convenient. Retailers today are having a tough time keeping the generation of mobile-first shoppers engaged. Online shopping has made the personalised shopping experience a norm for retailers who wish to succeed. To achieve this, companies are adopting predictive analysis to provide the most relevant content and recommendations. Retailers are increasingly relying on AI tools to understand and deliver customer requirements. The one who fails to properly utilise the data and offer relevant services loses the race right at the beginning.

To boost sales, companies have to provide an unmatched digital experience. Omnichannel experience is required to provide both in-store satisfaction and the convenience of online shopping.

Real-time data and analytics powered by automation in retail is helping companies in faster and more accurate decision-making. Data analysis through automation is more accurate and insights are bias-free. Automation also helps in providing customers with exciting experiences. It eliminates the chances of human error, reduces cost, and improves convenience and efficiency.

Kunal Mehta

These are the most challenging times for every retailer. Customers expect the same level of experience across all platforms. They expect the brand to provide the same personalised services, product recommendations, instant deliveries across geographies. Retailers need to keep upgrading their technologies and adopt an agile framework, which will allow them to move quickly across platforms and manage them at low costs. However, retailers need to invest in strong back-end enterprise resource planning, point-of-sale and customer relationship management (CRM) systems to manage huge volumes of data, and drive data analytics and multichannel retailing.

What are some of the challenges faced in managing ICT infrastructure?

Ghazal Alagh

Some of the biggest challenges in ICT implementation pertain to privacy, security and information overload, especially when most of the customers prefer to shop online as they have concerns regarding the security of their personal and payment details. To protect against any possible breach, retail companies have to invest a significant amount in technologies that ensure cybersecurity.

Also, with the advancement in technology, capturing information about customers and their behaviour has become very easy. The market is overloaded with data. The real challenge here is to process the information and available data into valuable insights for the business. Today, the majority of retail companies are involved in data collection, but many of them lack the right technology and required skills to transform it into useful business insights.

The cost of ICT adoption may also be a challenge, especially for small retailers. Building an ICT infrastructure and adopting supporting technologies requires a considerable amount of money, which may become an added liability for small players.

Kunal Mehta

Organisations today want to keep trying new tools and technologies. The biggest challenge is the investment required in new technologies. Does one follow a capex or an opex model? How does one constantly change technologies and integration touchpoints in a short span of time in order to stay relevant? Technology leaders need to ensure that they have agile infrastructure, which will enable retailers to try new business models, ideas and strategies.

Manish Saini

  • Lack of efficient data storage architecture: With the greater adoption of cloud computing, the cost of data storage has reduced. However, the existing cloud architecture is inadequate to accommodate all the different applications. The IT community needs solutions that can address these inadequacies.
  • Ways to improve data analytics: Currently, there is no system in place to separate quality data from the enormous data sets available. It is imperative for a business to identify patterns in data and analyse it for making business decisions.
  • Networks and connectivity: A good and reliable network ensures that an organisation functions smoothly. Software-based methods and network architecture designs are essential for data optimisation.

What are your views on the adoption of new technologies like cloud, AI, AR/VR and IoT across Indian retail companies? What are your future plans with regard to these?

Ghazal Alagh

The entire retail business has witnessed a major shift in approach, from being product centred to becoming customer centred in the past few years. These new-age technologies have already gained traction on the global platform. They are helping retailers provide exceptional customer experience and bring in change. Indian retail companies are also following the global trend and gradually adopting these modern technologies. The biggest bottleneck that Indian retailers face in using these technologies is the cost involved and the unpredictable return on investment. But given the changing buying behaviour of consumers driven by expanding internet reach and the growing number of online shoppers, technologies like AI/ machine learning, cloud and IoT are slowly gaining ground in the country’s retail ecosystem. AR/VR is a relatively new concept and will take some more time to be accepted but will surely take centre stage in the years to come and transform the way the retail industry operates in India.

As far as our plans are concerned, we are already using some of these technologies and plan to embrace more of them as we scale up our business.

Kunal Mehta

These are not the technologies of the future any more. Every retailer, big or small, is in some way using these technologies to improve their back-end operations and customer experience across platforms in order to stay relevant and engaged with their customers at all times. These are the technologies that will change the way retailers function and drive sales and user experience. The adoption of these technologies is the need of the hour and not just a fashionable trend. However, retailers need to be clear of their roadmap for technology deployment and ensure that it aligns with the brand ethos, else it may backfire.

Manish Saini

The future of retail will be driven by data, analytics, AI and IoT. AI has the potential to significantly improve customer experience through machine learning. In the future, more than 80 per cent of human interactions in retail will be handled by AI.

The key areas for big data, AI, cloud and IoT application would be:

  • Personalisation and product recommendations
  • Inventory planning and forecasting
  • Enhanced user interface
  • Optimising production and maintenance
  • Research and development
  • Tailored marketing
  • Improved efficiency in operations

Amazon Go and Walmart’s self-scanning robots are live examples of these.