Google Cloud: How retailers are innovating for the “new normal” of the future

The global pandemic has pushed businesses to transform their daily operational functions, especially within the retail space. From rapid adoption of safety protocols in grocery stores to innovative new ecommerce experiences, retailers have stepped up during these unprecedented times. Although the circumstances are clearly very challenging, the response from retailers has been nothing short of exceptional. However, one question that is naturally at the forefront of many retail minds is what will happen in the future as a result of the pandemic. With the rise of automation and the distinct challenge of implementing safe social distancing in stores, particularly smaller outlets, what will the new “normal” for retail even look like?

While no one can predict the future, these current circumstances present a genuine opportunity for rapid innovation and the development of new solutions. Retailers need to accelerate their digital transformation efforts while also maintaining reliable customer experiences especially as expectations continue to grow. So, what will this involve? There are a few important factors that retailers need to consider as they not only navigate the now but prepare for the future including new technologies, data analytics, and collaboration tools.


Technology at the heart of the “new normal”

It’s hard to predict what changes are in store for retail, especially as the situation is still developing. What has stood out though is that the crisis has caused retailers to compress multi-year technology change programmes into months or even weeks. Legacy technology infrastructure has become a significant barrier during this period so the need for a retailer to  transform their ecommerce operations has never been more pressing.

Part of this has been the huge shift in customers relying on online shopping and home delivery, and this trend is showing no signs of slowing down. Retailers with seamless online experiences that match customer expectations are able to take advantage of the change, those that haven’t invested in modernising their e-commerce platforms are seeing customers move elsewhere. To meet this growing demand, many retailers are turning to the cloud to not only help them scale flexibly but also reduce costs of legacy IT infrastructure – which is even more important in the current volatile climate.

Technology will also play a key role in driving changes in stores to keep both customers and colleagues safe. For example, customers might need to book visiting slots online, use their smartphone to scan and pay for items when in store, or even use augmented reality powered fitting rooms to reduce the time spent in stores. These and other innovations will be powered by modern cloud-based technology, inspiring new experiences and enabling retailers to develop new solutions and services from idea to trial at a much faster rate.


Analysing the data

As customers flock to digital stores and virtual fitting rooms, differentiation will be critical – this can be achieved through using data for both decision making, and delivering timely and relevant experiences. With this in mind, creating personalised experiences will also continue to be a huge area of focus as retailers work to recreate what “shopping” will look like now and in the future. Those retailers that continue to invest in data capabilities are likely to be amongst the winners as we emerge from the current pandemic reality.

Data analysis tools such as BigQuery are being used to upgrade legacy data warehouses and address many modern analytics challenges that retailers face when harnessing data to deliver enhanced customer service. Many retailers still rely on siloed, batched data, and in today’s environment, this is no longer acceptable. Retailers need access to real-time data to inform business decisions and personalize the customers’ shopping experience.  As a tool, BigQuery has been designed to support retail data analysts and data scientists, improving their productivity and continuing to add value during this crisis. Machine learning development is also helping retailers start to predict the best actions and decisions based on their own customer data assets.

By combining data from omnichannel experiences – in other words, a customer’s experiences in store, on apps and on websites – retail companies can create a more connected shopping experience both online and in the physical store. Through data analytics, the role and influence of a physical store can now be assessed fully and could change significantly as a result of this.


Team collaboration with ease

Another important recent change that will shape the future world of retail is the need for more teams to work together remotely, meaning greater collaboration is needed. Alongside adjusting to this, retailers will need to ‘build-in’ greater flexibility and capacity for change against the backdrop of continued uncertain market outlook.

Instead of sticking with fixed functional teams – as is done by many traditional retailers – it can be expected to see the creation of new multi-disciplinary ‘opportunity teams’, which can focus on a specific outcome at pace. As the pace of change continues to increase, especially during these challenging times, innovation becomes a minimum standard and those retailers that don’t change fast will see an eventual decline in success.

The advances in the new ways of working will need to be supported by the use of collaborative tools such as G Suite – allowing teams to work together in real-time, from any location, whilst supporting their in-store colleagues to gain immediate feedback on products and experiences. With these existing tools, ‘digital factories’ could be spun up to address specific challenges, driven by computational power and smart analytics capabilities. Uber, Airbnb and others were all created following the last major recession in 2008. What could be developed from this new reality in autonomous delivery systems, self-disinfecting fixtures in stores, or other areas of retail?

One thing is certain, retailers will continue to successfully adapt and create new experiences with which to engage their customers. These uncertain times have shown that it is even more important for retailers to have the right tools to support colleagues to work productively and effectively, as well as harness the ideas and creativity of their teams. Without collaborative tools, progress will be much slower.

Whether it be finding out the best way to use robotics and automation, understanding large data sets, or even creating new experiences for customers, technology will be the key to driving meaningful changes in the retail sector. As we look to the future, we know recovery will take some time, and will vary by retail sub-segment. While it can’t be said for sure what the future of retail will look like, collaborative efforts and powerful tools will help push retailers in a direction where they can fully control what their own new normal will look like.

By Mark Steel, Director of Retail EMEA, Google Cloud

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