Enterprises in the retail sector have started deploying various new-age technologies and solutions to streamline their operations and enhance business efficiency. New technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT), virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and robotics are being used to provide a personalised experience to customers and offer customised products and services. The Covid-19 pandemic has further provided a boost to this trend towards digitalisation, with companies having to innovate and come up with new or altered offerings to continue serving their customers while maintaining social distancing norms. This digital transformation has, no doubt, come with its own set of challenges, but organisations are meeting them by adopting new business models and amending their ways of working. Jeyandran Venugopal, Chief Product and Technology Officer, Flipkart, shares his views on how information and communications technology (ICT) is transforming the retail sector, the various opportunities and challenges that this transformation presents, and the way forward…
What are the key ICT trends dominating the retail sector? How has been the adoption of next-generation technologies such as AI, IoT, robotics and AR/VR in India’s retail sector?
The e-commerce industry has seen a massive uptake since the Covid-19 pandemic hit the nation. The first wave reinstated the need for ready availability of essentials at the customers’ doorstep and the need was further reinforced during the second wave of the pandemic. Today, almost all online businesses are ramping up their tech infrastructure to ensure easy accessibility and customer engagement. As a result, AI, machine learning (ML), IoT, robotics and AR/VR are being increasingly used across all customer-facing and operational processes to ensure efficiency. Moreover, these technologies are being implemented to effectively communicate and engage with customers.
According to a report by the International Trade Administration, India’s ICT market is projected to grow to $350 million by 2025. With the rapid digital transformation in the country in the backdrop of the pandemic, this growth is further expected to accelerate. As India’s home-grown e-commerce marketplace, Flipkart has a deep understanding of changing customer behaviours and has been agile and resilient in enabling digital inclusion, in line with the dynamic external scenario. With tech innovations such as Voice Search, Vernacular Language interfaces and Voice Assistant, Flipkart’s role has been pivotal in catalysing the growth of e-commerce in the country and making the purchase journeys of customers seamless.
What are the key technologies being adopted by your organisation? How did ICT/digital solutions help in overcoming the impact of Covid-19 on your business and operations?
Innovation has been the key theme for 2020 and 2021. Businesses, irrespective of the sector, are increasingly incorporating innovative tech solutions to scale up to meet the increase in demand, to streamline various operational processes and offer greater ease of communication to internal stakeholders. And the pandemic offered a unique opportunity to rapidly test newly developed technologies at scale to check their efficacy.
At Flipkart, we are constantly cultivating a “culture of innovation”, where we are working towards bringing more robustness into our operations, while making it agile. We use technology at every stage of our operations, ranging from seamless navigational experience on the platform to product purchase, inventory management to quality checking and managing end-to-end supply chain using automation, AI and various other new-age technologies.
In warehouse management and supply chain, automation plays a significant role due to multiple nodes such as fulfilment centres, sorting and planning, delivery hubs and last-mile delivery to customers. We have also introduced automated guided vehicles (AGVs) in our sorting centres to efficiently sort thousands of packages, based on their destinations. From providing customer and seller support remotely to building new capabilities such as vernacular, voice, video and games, we have extensively used new-age technologies in our operations to provide a seamless e-commerce experience to millions of customers across the country.
During the outbreak of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, we were able to forge relationships with other retailers and cab operators to ensure that customers were able to purchase their essentials through Flipkart in a seamless manner. What it meant was that customers could look for products on the Flipkart app and the same would be delivered at their doorstep from their nearby modern retail store. We also introduced a contactless payment feature at the customers’ end to contribute towards the fight against Covid, while also bringing more people into the digital payments fold.
What are some of the challenges faced while deploying new-age technologies?
The current times have given birth to hyper-focused consumers, where they seek more, and technology companies are rising to the occasion to deliver value and customer delight. It is extremely crucial for e-commerce marketplaces to evolve with the customers, especially in the current scenario. The pandemic has altered consumer behaviour in a significant way, which has forced businesses to rethink and reinvent their operating models to stay relevant.
With the Covid-19 pandemic, various challenges as well as opportunities have emerged in the e-commerce space. The current era demands organisations to be nimble and agile to act according to the changing business scenarios in order to stay relevant. Focusing on the sole benefit and value addition of customers ensures inclusive sustainable growth of the entire e-commerce ecosystem. The first step towards building a simple and resilient business is to have a robust tech infrastructure, which can sustain a large amount of spikes in operations. To achieve this, companies should focus on the interplay of three areas: an organisation that can adapt quickly, applications that can adjust to the changing needs and an IT infrastructure that is reliable and scalable.
Going forward, what technological trends are expected to shape the sector?
These are exciting times for technology companies as customer appetite for experimenting with new products and solutions has never been higher. Capabilities such as AR and VR, conversational commerce and personalisation will play out as key trends in the coming decade. These front-end technologies will be complemented with a robust and agile back-end infrastructure, which further enables effective business continuity planning.
At Flipkart, our systems have been designed to equip employees with the ability to carry out tasks even during disruption, and while working remotely, they have been able to serve consumers seamlessly during this period. Such agility, resilience and dynamism brought by technology will reinforce companies’ faith in their capability to help the organisations sail through any unforeseen circumstances.