Selina Yuan, President of International Business, Alibaba Cloud Intelligence, asks whether now’s the time for retailers to redevelop their plans and ensure that their online offerings are fresh and in line with the expectations of digitally minded Millennials.
The global pandemic caused most stores’ shutters to clatter down at a time when high street retail was already vulnerable. With most physical stores closed, the technologies that underpin their online presence have had to accommodate the massive spike in online shopping driven by lockdown.
It’s my belief that the pandemic will accelerate the pace at which retailers embrace digitalised businesses models. That’s not just because many customers are wary of returning to the high street in a post-pandemic world.
Critically, from an operational perspective, cloud-based solutions reduce retailers’ overheads when it comes to managing a complicated IT infrastructure, while providing highly powerful resources delivered in a flexible consumption model. It is essential then that bricks and mortar retailers look to adopt such solutions for their digital transformation process.
The detail is in the digital change
Many retailers have already discovered to their advantage how a series of analytics-driven, cloud-based technologies, can support a massive demand in online shopping. The technologies that underpin their ability to deliver their online offering, typically include an Elastic Compute Service.
As its name suggests, this provides an elastic and secure virtual cloud server for seamless and cost-effective scalability, which is just what’s required when events like a pandemic causes online traffic to shoot up. Meanwhile, an on-demand database hosting service with automated management, backup and disaster recovery capabilities, gives retailers peace of mind that their platform is robust.
Another key asset here is a content delivery network, which is a multi-media content delivery service that can reach users across the globe; the beauty of the internet of course is that customers for your business or the services it provides, needn’t be restricted by geographical boundaries.
Furthermore, the cloud also offers a host of essential security solutions, and provides comprehensive compliance and protection against a range of ever-present security threats. For businesses with ambitions to expand, the cloud enterprise network provides them with the connectivity they need on both a regional and global basis.
Moreover, cloud computing is the foundation for digital change. In a bricks-and-mortar business model, there are orders, customer profiles, payments, product assortments, marketing information and supply chain processes, etc – all of those can be digitalised to provide a seamless online and offline shopping experience for customers.
Given how competitive and challenging the retail sector is, the decision to make the cloud a part of the digital transformation journey could well have a bearing on the success of a retail business.
The cloud route to an optimised customer experience
Of course, consumers still consumed even when the physical stores are closed. Here, technology has worked to recreate a fabulous in store experience while consumers order online.
In most cases, this has been achieved through harnessing cloud-computing capabilities, in a bid to provide brands with the technological infrastructure needed for them to better meet their customers’ and business needs.
Furthermore, the beauty of cloud-based solutions, is that they enable retailers to automate infrastructure updates and maintenance and utilise auto-scaling to respond to fluctuating demand.
They also benefit from a digitised inventory and supply chain systems, trend insights and mobile payments; all of these combine to play a part in meeting customer expectations.
A search that goes beyond words
Meanwhile, ‘back at the store’, some products – like Alibaba Cloud’s Image Search and Machine Learning Platform for AI – have transformed the way that customers interact with sites and how they shop for products. These technologies provide the necessary insights and real-time information to optimise the shopping experience for the customer.
“Given how competitive and challenging the retail sector is, the decision to make the cloud a part of the digital transformation journey could well have a bearing on the success of a retail business”
For example, precise search would enable shoppers to search more accurately for items using an image, rather than by typing in a vague keyword into the search box. Therefore, retailers can implement image search as an added functionality to improve the effectiveness of search results.
An image search enables customers to upload a photo or a screenshot of the product to easily find similar or identical products. Image Search is a technology that utilises machine learning and deep learning to analyse images, find desired products, and fulfil search requests quickly and conveniently.
Bear in mind too, that sometimes customers browse for unspecified items. With customised discovery, shoppers benefit from seeing personalised recommendations based on their interests or needs, making the shopping experience even more tailored to them. Livestreaming is also another useful tool to drive sales, especially during the pandemic. In the Chinese retail sector, it is a technology that is being used more frequently and in more innovative ways.
Additionally, the middle-end solution can alert retailers if a specific product is trending on social media and allows them to create reports for further analysis. Its machine learning capabilities provide forecasting abilities to enable better future planning. So, retailers could, for example, forecast how many users to expect on their website.
An offer you can’t refuse
One interesting development surrounds how insights can be used intelligently to guide customers to the best deals and offers at a time when many families will be watching their budgets more carefully than ever.
To that end, digitalisation and machine learning capabilities can enable a better shopping experience, helping customers better connect with relevant brands and retailers.
Equipped with cloud-based consumer insights from an ecommerce platform, retailers can more effectively acquire, engage and retain customers, through campaign testing, targeted marketing and a personalised user interface; consumers will be able to get highly relevant content along with personalised shopping recommendations.
A typical example is how online product recommendations provide suggestions on what items to buy. They do this by analysing past consumption history.
By leveraging the capabilities of the IAAS, together with PAAS and SAAS, cloud technologies could also help retailers develop and execute more effective Online-to-Offline (O2O) strategies. For example, retailers could simply offer their customers discount vouchers on their social media platforms to be used in physical stores.
Keeping stock of it all, all year around
One early dynamic in the pandemic was that of ‘panic buying’, which depleted stocks in-store and online. When stocks of essentials supplies are low, technology can be used to steer customers to retailers that do have the essential supplies they need.
This is supported by retailers developing smart inventory management solutions for asset and inventory tracking to gain the visibility into the supply chain. From a retailer’s perspective, these solutions can save them numerous working hours cataloguing items and conducting stock taking activities.
Retailers can also automate the management of assets and inventory from procurement through to the distribution stages. With automation, retailers can match inventory and order status in real time, and – at the end of the customer journey – offer suitable delivery options to customers. Furthermore, they can provide the ability to organise inventory and make optimum use of the warehouse space.
While Covid-19 has given every single sector a considerable jolt, it has also been an opportune time for retailers to use cloud-based technology to help finesse their online and offline offerings to meet the expectations of post-pandemic consumers.