The retail sector has been undergoing rapid digitalisation in the past couple of years. New-age technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), internet of things (IoT), augmented reality (AR)/virtual reality (VR), cloud and big data are increasingly making inroads into the sector as enterprises are taking concrete measures to provide a more immersive experience to their customers. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has further provided a thrust to digital uptake in the sector. As such, the e-commerce market is expanding at an exponential rate. That said, the deployment of these technologies comes with its own set of challenges. Jeyandran Venugopal, chief product and technology officer, Flipkart shares his views on how ICT is transforming the retail sector and the various opportunities/challenges that the Covid-19 crisis is presenting…

What are the key ICT trends shaping the retail industry at present?

The Indian retail industry, specifically the fast-growing e-commerce industry, is at the cusp of another round of evolution with the introduction of AI and machine learning (ML) technologies which bring personalisation and convenience to users. These technologies also play a crucial role in building a smart supply chain, which can predict demand and allocate space efficiently to ensure on-time delivery. Further, with the growing penetration of smartphones and internet services in smaller towns of the country, the ICT ecosystem is set to grow to unparalleled heights. As per the Internet and Mobile Association of India and Nielsen, rural India has 10 per cent more internet users than urban India, with collective internet users across the country standing at over 430 million. This represents a big opportunity to simplify technology and expand the reach to provide convenience to millions of consumers, thereby eliminating the sophistication and complexity of new-age shopping for consumers in Tier II cities and beyond.

How are technologies such as AI, IoT, robotics, AR/VR and cloud transforming the sector?

The Covid-19 crisis presents a great opportunity to look at innovative ways of solving problems as companies across sectors try to stay afloat and drive business. Emerging technologies such as AI, ML and robotics are playing a key role in ensuring that businesses run efficiently and effectively by seamlessly delivering goods and services to consumers. These technologies will also help in bringing the next 200 million consumers online and ensuring seamless distribution of goods across the country. At Flipkart, we rolled out some of our biggest tech innovations during the pandemic, while working remotely. Innovations such as addition of three new vernacular interfaces, an industry-first AI-enabled voice assistant, launch of our hyperlocal delivery model Flipkart Quick are a few instances. The voice assistant allows consumers from small towns, whom we refer to as the Bharat cohort, to talk to the assistant to buy groceries, just as one would do at a kirana store. This is done using technologies such as speech-to-text, natural language processing and dialogue manager to bring to life a personalised shopping experience. Further, our hyperlocal model solved various challenges of speed, selection and delivery to offer a 90-minute delivery promise to our consumers. For Flipkart, innovation is not an afterthought but it is deeply ingrained in all our offerings and the industry too should increase the innovation quotient whenever there is a crisis.

What challenges and opportunities have come to the fore due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic?

We are going through difficult times and there is no particular playbook to deal with it. However, as businesses deal with uncertainties and ambiguity, there are opportunities arising as well, especially when new-age businesses are exploring innovative solutions. Every crisis also presents an opportunity to think different, think of out-of-box solutions and even scale up. For e-commerce platforms such as Flipkart, this meant prioritising the delivery of essentials. And because of the uncertainty of the issue, this also meant several changes over many days and weeks of the lockdown period. The changes have and will continue to alter how customers engage on our platform. Our teams across the catalogue, fulfilment, seller platform and customer service had to make these changes quickly, while working remotely to ensure that customers and sellers continue to experience our services without disruption, while we remain compliant with regulations.

What kind of change has the Covid-19 pandemic brought to your business and marketing strategies? What key emerging trends do you expect in the near future?

The current era demands organisations to be nimble and agile to act according to the changing business scenarios in order to stay relevant. At Flipkart, we have always imbibed the idea of agility in our ethos, which was put on display during the lockdown. As the entire country was virtually shut down, our teams worked round the clock to ensure a fast and seamless integration with modern retail trade stores. This agility can be achieved by enabling a few shifts in the existing system – forming cross-functional teams (or “squads”) of well-rounded infrastructure engineers using agile methods, simplifying processes for delivering infrastructure service offerings and improving the functioning of infrastructure and development teams working together. Using an agile mode of transformation to modernise an IT infrastructure organisation is not easy, but it is worthwhile. The less complexity there is with IT, the better. That can certainly be the case in an emergency situation like the Covid pandemic. Instead of trying to get back to “normal” or attempting “business as usual”, the industry must focus on building resilience in every aspect of business. For instance, at Flipkart, our systems are designed to equip employees to carry out tasks even during the disruption, enabling consumers to seamlessly order essentials and non-essentials. This was brought about on the back of a simplified tech infrastructure in the backend to safeguard against disruption. This simplification builds resilience and robustness in systems.