Saif Ahmad, Vice-President, Engineering, Ferns N Petals

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), 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. Saif Ahmad, Vice-President, Engineering, Ferns N Petals, 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 overall landscape and technology trends, particularly during 2020-21, revolved around the uptake of emerging technologies such as big data, cloud computing and cloud engineering, and payment options. Data engines are being developed using these technologies. Meanwhile, payment has become very critical and work is being done on the integration of payment options. At Ferns N Petals (FnP), we are working on creating our own wallet, integrated with most of the state-of-the-art payment options such as Google Pay or PhonePe.

Further, customisation and personalisation have become a vital part of the strategy in the e-commerce space. Personalisation is happening with regard to creating a complete system or a complete environment, that is personalised for respective users. Product discovery is already a challenge for users and to address this, companies are deploying emerging technologies for a smooth product discovery. Customers can now search for a product using a voice search or image-based search. Solr is an extensive search engine, which allows mechanisms such as image-based search or voice-based search, voice-to-text and text-to-voice translation. IoT is also making inroads in product discovery. Almost a year back we had gone live with Alexa integration, which enables users to not only search but also complete the entire order, using Alexa only. Product virtualisation has also picked up pace. Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic, retail has been shifting online and companies are deploying solutions such as AR, VR, 3D view and 4D view to give consumers the same offline experience through online. Another important thing is content dynamism, wherein you give complete control to your business administrators to command the overall content part and also edit personalised content for a user. With this, technology-based systems can control the overall interface and determine what kind of content requires to be displayed on any kind of condition. It can be demography based, or geography based and so, content dynamism is another thing happening in this period. Since FnP is a kind of portal where we have both online as well as offline presence, a lot of omnichannel integration is also happening. We are currently working on something new to integrate both offline and online stores. At present, when you enter an FnP store, it does not have a catalogue such as the one available online. So, this attempt is a complete marrying of online and offline.
Another important thing that is happening is innovation in terms of how the product is being offered to customers. Thus, a lot of innovation is happening in terms of creating a tool that can offer superior customised and personalised technology-based solutions. Because of the pandemic and otherwise also, the online user base is also increasing, which means we need to scale up faster, and at the same time work on the performance of the offline backbone.

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?

Looking back at March 2020, when everything was absolutely pulled down, there was no retail business and FnP products depended on offline deliveries. So, we had to be innovative to survive and continue our business. And so, we started digitalising our products. We started selling digital cards or digital products, which means a voice-based product, which was all automated. Second is the digitalisation of the product in terms of cards. So, we created 3D printed or 4D cards, wherein you can upload your images and the system was capable of creating digitalised cards. Thus, we entered into product innovation and once things got normal, we started working on other things such as the overall automation of logistics, supply chain and inventory management.

What are some of the challenges faced while deploying new-age technologies?

The biggest challenge is knowledge acquisition and knowledge development. When you move towards a new technology and you find a problem, which can be solved using the new technology, then you need to acquire the knowledge also. So, the entire rigorous process of training is a challenge and I think it is for the entire industry. Then it leads to talent acquisition and talent retention because you spend time and cost, developing the knowledge and then talent moves and we do not get the right talent because the market is so open.

Another challenge, is spectrum compatibility. Sometimes when you build a new system, you don’t know how compatible it would be with various other devices, as there are new devices and software that are being introduced every day. People are now consuming your platform in Tier 2 or Tier 3 cities, where there is low or limited bandwidth. When you build a new system or adopt a new technology, then maintaining that technology and building the right guidelines, right practices, and right standards are also difficult. So, when you adopt something new, maintenance of that becomes very challenging for you. At FnP, we are still working in terms of creating the right standards, right adherence and right practices for the technology team, so that whatever we are building also remains scalable.

Another challenge is security threats or fraud monitoring. As we are introducing a lot of new payment options, a lot of things are in experimental mode, wherein other overhead security checks or fraud monitoring become challenging. Another challenge is that when you are adopting new technologies or building new systems, you have to integrate them in such an order that they remain scalable. So, robustness and scalability of a new system is also a challenge, which many a time is not successful. So, we have spent lots of time in terms of rearranging our existing system to make it highly compatible and flexible in terms of new tools and new technologies.

Then, technologies such as AR, VR and data science are becoming the new normal in terms of adoption, but at the same time, it leads to a new challenge in terms of overall capability. With limited bandwidth, you need to be focused on meeting the challenge.

Going forward, what technological trends are expected to shape the sector?

Now everything is becoming a service. Infrastructure is becoming a service; software is also becoming a service. So, there can be new innovations, where everything will become a service.

A lot of focus is there on the payment side, so I think the pre-integration of POS with e-commerce platforms is something next on the cards and lots of work is already happening.

Further, there would be an automated system for inventory management. FnP is currently automating its warehouse system and working on the overall inventory management system. Further, lots of IoT- and robotics-based solutions are being deployed in offline systems such as in logistics and supply chain management. In other countries, people are experimenting with drone-based deliveries and it can be the future for India also. Personalisation is something that is ever-extending and it will keep evolving on a much larger scale. The industry is also working on a buy-online pick-offline kind of system.