Wednesday Jun 19, 2013

Accelerating Innovation for Retailers

In today's competitive marketplace, a big differentiator can be technology, where advancements in social and mobile have opened new possibilities for increasing employee efficiency and enhancing the customer experience.  Therefore, its critical that retailers establish their own labs to track and adopt new ideas.  There are several different approaches, and there's no single right way to establish a lab.  Below I describe the most common three approaches I've seen from retailers.

1. Organic approach.  Some retailers, like Tesco and Wet Seal, fan the flames of innovation within their four walls. Using internal employees, they design and implement novel ideas that improve the business.  Tesco has continued to innovate with their website, loyalty program, and their mobile apps, much of which is developed internally.  Wet Seal, one of the early pioneers of social retailing, learns through trial-and-error, finding out which ideas have legs.  This approach requires strong leadership, vision, and a willingness to fail so its not for every company.

2. Kickstart with acquisitions.  In April of 2011 Walmart acquired Kosmix, a social startup, and formed @WalmartLabs.  This was followed by a string of additional acquisitions in the social and cloud spaces.  HomeDepot followed a similar path by acquiring BlackLocus to form a lab then following with the acquisition of Red Beacon.  This can be an effective approach if there's no existing culture of innovation, so buying the start-up mentality can form a basis for building a lab.


3. Partner collaboration.  The danger retailers face is losing focus on their core competency -- retailing.  Running a start-up within a large company can be costly, reliant on key individuals, and sometimes a distraction to the core business.  An alternative approach is to partner with technology companies so as to share some of the burden.  Lowes, for example, invites technology partners to present innovative ideas then chooses a few projects for collaboration.  This can be an excellent way to stay on the leading edge of innovation without some of the mentioned downsides.

CEOs know that standing still is not an option, so look for more retailers to establish labs where technology innovation can be better cultivated.


Monday Mar 18, 2013

Techapalooza

I previously discussed the importance of establishing an innovation lab so that companies can keep up with emerging technology trends. But innovation doesn't just happen in the lab -- it works best when its part of the culture.  Companies need to foster the free flow of information and ideas across the entire organization.  There are many tools that help in this regard, including online forums, instant messaging, social networks, etc.

Take this example from Lowe's.  An enterprising employee in the paint department of a store decided to demonstrate how a Teflon paint tray works by pouring in the paint, letting it dry, then peeling the paint out of the tray.  She left the tray and paint mold on display, and soon she was sold out of Teflon trays.  She described the incident on the company's internal forum and other stores began duplicating the display.  Sales went from 2 units per week per store to 6 representing over a million dollars in additional revenue.

But you can't just expect communication to happen without a little push. To get the juices flowing, Do It Best has an annual education event they call Techapalooza (kicking off today) that has the following mission:

Provide education that will inspire the innovative use of technology to improve our supply chain efficiencies and to help our members grow - all while having fun.

They invite a variety of presenters to this regional conference that speak on varied topics such as Big Data, RFID, Google Apps, cloud deployments -- all for the benefit of their employees. This week-long conference is packed with engaging sessions and networking opportunities that get employees thinking about new ways to go about business.

Companies need to provide opportunities to learn, share, and collaborate through a combination of software and events.  Internal conferences, science fairs, lunch-and-learn, online courses, social networks, etc. are great ways to engage employees and improve the way we work.  It only takes a few good ideas to make a difference.

Tuesday Jan 03, 2012

Best Buy in a Downward Spiral?

Larry Downes seems to have struck a nerve with his popular Forbes article Why Best Buy is going out of Business...Gradually.  As of this writing, he's already had over 550,000 views for the five-page, somewhat long-winded diatribe that was posted yesterday.  Larry basically lays out his reasoning for Best Buy's demise based on poor customer service while refuting the excuse that cheaper online retailers like Amazon have an unfair advantage.  He cites the recent cancellation of orders by Best Buy just before Christmas as the ultimate failure to serve customers.

As a former Circuit City employee, I can feel Best Buy's pain.  Electronics is a tough market. The products become obsolete quickly, installation and configuration can be customer service nightmares, and the Web has made competition more fierce than ever.

I haven't shopped at Best Buy in quite a while, so I don't have any good or bad recent experiences to relay.  But I did have three good customer experiences recently, so I thought I'd share:

1. We decided to do some remodeling in the kitchen so I ordered a faucet, cooktop, and range hood from Lowes.com.  They were available to be delivered from the local store in two weeks, but since we'd be on vacation I put a specific date in the comments.  Within an hour of submitting the order, my local Lowes called to verify exactly when I wanted the items delivered.  Everything arrived as planned.

2. I ordered a MicroSD card from Amazon, but the wrong type of card was delivered.  My order was accidentally switched with another Austin resident who got my product.  I called Amazon and they immediately shipped my original product via 2-day delivery with no questions asked.  I understand mistakes happen and just want them rectified quickly.

3. Lastly, I bought an expensive blender from Costco which went on sale the next week.  I called and they happily refunded the difference.  By the way, I chose to buy the blender from Costco not because they were cheapest but because they have an excellent return policy.

All three situations had a few things in common.  First, the employees I spoke with had good attitudes.  I felt they enjoyed their jobs, and it made the conversation that much better.  Second, all three retailers had the necessary systems to enable my purchase and handle post-purchase issues.  Third, the people I talked to were empowered to make me happy.  There was no runaround at all.

In this blog I focus lots on the technology that powers retailers, but in the end its the human touch that makes it work.  Perhaps Best Buy needs to get back to its customer service roots.

Tuesday Dec 06, 2011

2012 Predictions for Retail - Part 2

I think the first four predictions are pretty likely, so let's look at some things that are a bit of a stretch.  These next four predictions are based on emerging technologies making inroads but not widespread adoption.  Let me know if you agree or disagree in the comments.


5. Usable Augmented Reality

The first usable augmented reality app I used was Yelp when they had a semi-secret backdoor to access Monocle.  The concept has been accessible to us since Apple combined the camera, GPS, and accelerometer in the iPhone, but I haven't seen anything I would use on a regular basis.  Amazon's Flow is certainly a step in the right direction as is Tesco's subway store, and I think we'll see some more useful applications of AR next year.

And AR isn't limited to consumers.  It can be helpful for store managers to be able to get information about sales and inventory as they walk the store.  If a manager wants to know how many transaction per hour a checkout associate is doing, she need only point her camera.

6. Accurate Indoor Location

GPS has saved my marriage in several situations, and I can't live without it anymore.  Its perfect for driving, but its not accurate enough to help me navigate my local Lowes and Home Depot.  That's because GPS doesn't work well indoors.  Smartphones typically use a combination of GPS satellites and WiFi access points to triangulate your position.  The WiFi part is getting more accurate, and some systems leverage closed-loop security cameras to help.  This year will be first rollout of accurate in-store directions for a big-box retailer.  Not sure which one will be first, but I think the home improvement chains have the most to gain. 

Imagine standing in an aisle and pressing a "help me" button on your phone, and a clerk walks right to you for assistance.  Or getting turn-by-turn directions to find the garage door openers, for example.  Accurate indoor location also helps with geo-fencing that I mentioned earlier.  You might receive location-specific offers and product information as you walk.

7. Shopping with Siri

Apple's Siri is bringing to light the augmented humanity concept, the collaboration of humans and machines in transparent ways that enhance our everyday lives.  A subset of the concept is using natural user interfaces that are easy to manipulate.  In the case of Siri, voice response systems that understand questions and provide useful answers in context.

As smartphone adoption continues to grow in 2012, so will our dependence on them for providing information.  New mobile application that take advantage of voice response, computer vision, and even eye-tracking (remember, while you're using your iPhone, there's a camera pointed at your face) will begin to emerge.

This means it will be even easier for consumers to get any and all information about products and brands.  Look for Google and Apple to take the technology lead, and Amazon to capitalize on the advancements.

8. Behavior Profiling

When I shop, there are certain things that persuade me to buy: free shipping, good reviews, great price, perceived quality, easy returns, etc.  But those things vary by person and situation.  What if a retailer had a shopping profile on each of its customers and knew how to efficiently market to that customer?  While I don't that we'll get to that point in 2012, I do think significant progress in that direction will occur.

Take myLowes for example.  Lowes is collecting valuable information about each of its customers and will be better able to tailor offers that are more likely to be of interest.  Lowes will sell more, and its customers will have a better experience.

Look for retailers to offer more differentiated loyalty programs and then develop sophisticated marketing plans at more granular levels using all that psychographic big data.


2010 was the year when mobile went mainstream in the retail industry.  2011 marked widespread adoption of Facebook to drive sales and engage consumers.  I think 2012 will be the year that cloud computing gets serious. Look for lots of acquisition in this space, and more retailers to dip their toes in the water.
About


David Dorf, Sr Director Technology Strategy for Oracle Retail, shares news and ideas about the retail industry with a focus on innovation and emerging technologies.


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