Retailers across Asia have faced unprecedented challenges in recent years. Most significantly, the pandemic has accelerated the growth of online retail sales by two to five times pre-Covid rate, forcing many retailers to rapidly expand or strengthen their online presence. In Hong Kong, e-commerce revenue is expected to grow by 14.18 percent from 2022-2025, resulting in a projected market volume of 37.96 billion USD by 2025. In China, the projected market volume is already 1,412 billion USD in 2022, with similar growth rates expected.
This shift in buying behaviour is irreversible. By way of validation, a recent Deloitte report looking at the industry’s 2022 outlook found that sector leaders were expanding their digital capabilities and preparing their workforce for the future.
Facing a new era of retail, many businesses have had to adjust quickly. The companies that are thriving are doing so by means of Intelligent Automation (IA). In fact, in the Deloitte report, 82 percent of sector leaders said “automation wherever possible will be a high priority” and 67 percent of all respondents cited e-commerce and online shopping as areas for top investment.
Amid a pandemic and changing market demands, different segments of the retail sector in the region have varied in their performance, with those that are agile and innovative gaining the most ground. Intelligent Automation and digital workforces have played a critical role in providing the agility and resilience necessary to prosper in an uncertain and changing market.
Transformation is driven by digital workers
While digital transformation has long been a strategic priority for retailers, with many beginning their transformation initiatives as long as 10 years ago, updating systems can involve large amounts of development resources and can become risky and expensive to achieve scale. Creating a new systems roadmap or even updating existing ones demands substantial planning and IT resources.
At a regional automation showcase, an international retailer shared insights on leveraging Intelligent Automation to accelerate digital transformation projects that could take years to complete.
Instead of having to overhaul a myriad of legacy technologies and systems, businesses can utilise digital workers to serve as the integration of the virtualisation layer allowing legacy infrastructure to play its part in digital and online operations. Their ability to enable digital interaction with legacy systems allows for a simple, no-code approach to automation, enabling businesses to develop and put in place automated processes very quickly.
Retailers effectively develop the architecture they need on top of their legacy technology instead of replacing it. For example, to ensure consistent changes in prices, promotions and rules such as purchase limits across their offline and online businesses, retailers have to integrate their online platforms with legacy systems and enterprise resource planning (ERP), which is often a long and tedious process. As a solution, digital workers are deployed to pull and sync data from each system without the need for integration or invoke a new development programme that could take up more time and cost.
The customer contact centre is another area that has been under immense pressure because of the pandemic. Initially, retailers had to transition their entire call centre staff to a remote working model in a matter of days. Many were also dealing with significant fluctuations in customer contacts due to the surge in online transactions. To compound this issue, moving into this year, 70 percent of retail executives reported that employee shortages are predicted to negatively impact growth.
To navigate these challenges, the international retailer explained is using digital workers for standard, process-driven activities while freeing up their employees to spend more quality time with customers, giving them the support and attention they need.
Digital workers can also be deployed to collect customer data across different systems, helping to predict customers’ inquiries and thus rendering a faster and better customer support experience. There is no doubt that digital workers have provided vital operational support while allowing retail businesses to continue to deliver seamless customer experience, which 96 percent of consumers now expect, throughout volatile times.
Many of the changes that occurred within contact centre operations as a result of the pandemic are unlikely to reverse. In fact, as activities start to return back to pre-pandemic days, retailers will continue to leverage Intelligent Automation to deliver a better experience for their customers and employees. To conclude the discussion, the international retailer shared its plan to deploy automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning in-store operations to mitigate their employment gaps and deliver better services.
Intelligent Automation with intention
Most would agree that the events of the last two years have led retailers in Asia to view digital labour as a strategic resource. Many retailers that were at the early stages of their automation journeys had previously seen digital workers as a tactical tool to address specific pain points in individual processes or provide a measure of operational efficiency in specific areas of the business. This type of tactical automation strategy, while delivering some valuable results, does not allow retailers to benefit from the true power of a digital workforce. Many enterprises have moved beyond tactical to strategic, aligning their automation strategy with the larger business plan. This in turn provides a clear direction for automation to scale across the entire organisation to support the business in achieving its goals.
The pandemic has opened many retailers’ eyes to the transformational potential of Intelligent Automation. They are now recognising its ability to empower organisations to completely reimagine their operating and resourcing models as well as the way they engage with customers. This realisation is being felt across all areas of retail businesses, from the board and executive levels, right down through to the call centre staff.
Retailers across Asia have become more resilient and agile in their operations over recent years. This newfound willingness to innovate quickly is set to remain long after the pandemic, fostering business operating models across the sector. Make no mistake that as retailers continue to drive transformation and deliver on both tactical and strategic goals, the increase in the use of digital labour in retail will continue to accelerate.
Author: Eric Kwok, Head of Solution Consulting, Greater China Region, SS&C Blue Prism
*Disclaimer: The views and opinion expressed in the article belong solely to the original author and do not represent the views, opinions and position of Retail in Asia.