How AI and Data Can Help Retail’s Ongoing Pandemic Challenges

Hybrid shopping and scaling up data and analytics were among the top topics of interest as retail business executives returned to the Javits Center in New York City for the first time two years ago for the National Retail Federation’s big show.

But despite a return to the personal space, the pandemic and the retail response to it remained central to the themes of the event. In fact, even with COVID precautions such as proof of vaccination required, many tech vendors pulled out of in-person participation at the last minute due to the expected increase in the Omicron variant coinciding with event dates in mid-January.

“Together we have faced an impressive array of challenges,” said Mike George, departing NRF Chairman, in his keynote address. In 2020, the pandemic stopped the world but retail never stopped. We have continued to move forward, striving and evolving to meet the rapidly changing needs of our customers and communities.”

While we may all be stressed, this evolution continues as retailers prepare to leverage technology to face a new set of challenges in 2022, along with the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, e-commerce and supply chain issues, and more.

How have consumer habits changed

A new survey by NRF and IBM Institute for Business Value shows that more consumers (27% of all consumers and 36% of Generation Z) are turning to “mixed shopping,” a mixture of physical and digital channels.

George said that “the older generation reports that they are more comfortable now with online shopping, in-store pickup, or curbside pickup. They are more comfortable with ordering groceries online. There is no going back to the way things were in pre-pandemic times.”

In fact, 58% of all consumers say they have used the in-store self-checkout system and plan to continue using it, and 50% say they have used the online ordering system, and picked it up at the store. Another 47% said they used mobile contactless payment.

Pain points for retailers

Successful retailers have focused on meeting the challenge of hybrid demand, but many weaknesses remain, according to Rob Saker, global head of retail and manufacturing at Databricks, a cloud-based data, artificial intelligence and analytics platform. It’s been two years since the pandemic broke out, and retailers have rushed and invested in e-commerce orders to store and deliver.

“Now retailers are in this situation in between. We are reopening our doors but the growth rate of e-commerce as a percentage of revenue has gone down and many retailers are struggling to achieve profitability in e-commerce fulfillment and delivery,” he told InformationWeek.

Combine that with ongoing supply chain bottlenecks, inflation and labor shortages, and you’ll begin to get a sense of what retailers face for 2022.

On technology, Saker says, “Many of the systems companies have built their operations on are too slow to support retail challenges.” “There is a lot of response time, and response time leads to additional costs.”

Improving these back-end processes will be a major focus in 2022. But there are some benefits that will come from this work.

Leverage data and analytics

For example, the main benefit of all additional e-commerce comes in the form of additional data about customers and their preferences. Retailers are now in a position to gain better insight into customer preferences and spending habits and use the information to provide a better customer experience through sales, marketing and forecasting so that essential items do not run out of stock.

The challenge in leveraging all this data can be that there is no single source of truth, Katie Campbell, senior director of analytics delivery for air mattress maker and retailer Sleep Number, said during a virtual session at NRF.

“this is [single source of truth] “It’s been an ongoing struggle for us and I think a lot of companies,” Campbell said. Sleep Number is a new client for the analytics company SAS. “We have a lot of data sources — our own data, as well as third-party data — and we’ve had a lot of business users who have been building their data lakes into different tools using different strategies.” This means that the different groups were drawing different conclusions from the same data.

“One of our big goals was to get all that data together in one place,” Campbell said. Another big goal is to improve the company’s decision-making process. The consumer products company wants to create a center of excellence for enterprise analysis that will enable it to go beyond business intelligence and reporting to use the platform for everything from product design, product thinking, sales, planning and customer service, according to Dan Mitchell. SAS Director of Global Retail.

retail clouds

Microsoft and Google used the NRF event to showcase their retail industrial clouds. On February 1, Microsoft announced the availability of Microsoft Cloud for Retail, a suite of retail capabilities collected in the Microsoft cloud, including a way to unify disparate data sources, according to Microsoft. In 2022, the company said, this industry-specific cloud will help retailers maximize the value of retail data, improve their customers’ shopping experiences, build a sustainable and real-time supply chain, and help empower store partners.

In a blog post that synced with NRF, Google recommended that retailers harness data and artificial intelligence to forecast demand with its Vertex AI solution and highlighted additional technologies designed to help retailers compete in a turbulent market.

Rise to the challenge

“While we all fervently hope, as Omicron begins to peak across the country, that we will find the worst of these days behind us, it is still difficult to predict what the virus may have in store for us in 2022,” George said. In his keynote. “However, we are entering the year with great confidence as we have all demonstrated tremendous agility over the past two years proving our ability to deliver safe, convenient and inspiring shopping in the face of unprecedented challenges.

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