Retail in Asia


Why is digital key to building retail resiliency in an evolving world?


In 2020, retailers learned what it meant to turn adversity into opportunity. Digital demand had to be answered, all while one of the most challenging black swan events in a generation rattled consumer confidence.

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It is widely acknowledged that retailers were already facing significant challenges prior to the pandemic – whether the spiralling costs of property and in-store operations as the rise of e-commerce and digital-first consumer expectations continued to impact business, or the challenges of adapting to the new operational requirements for the shift to an e-commerce focus.

What’s more, many were struggling to connect physical and digital retail data, and how to appropriately measure sales attributions, be it via offline or online channels.

That said, 2020 accelerated innovation as well as new services and features that would have taken years to achieve. People were experiencing how to shop in a more digitally oriented way, as life continued in a low-touch world. 2020 brought the future of retail into the present.

A Google survey last year found that in Singapore, 24 percent of all online buyers during the city’s Circuit Breaker period were new buyers. Even more significant was that 74 percent of first-time online buyers during the Circuit Breaker in Singapore expressed that they would continue making online purchases post-lockdown. Interestingly, 32 percent of Indonesians during lockdown said they had not previously made a purchase on any e-commerce platform.

Today, priorities and shopping habits have shifted, with consumers increasingly embracing e-commerce, and opting for delivery and self-pickup as primary last-mile fulfilment channels – developing new preferences and behaviours in their interactions with retailers. Customers are now expecting a seamless offline to online consumer journey, whether in shopping aisles, or leveraging click-and-collect and home delivery options.

Retailers need to contend not just with the fluidity of business operations versus periods of restricted movements, but also the need to control the flow of traffic in-store to reduce dwell times, as well as wait time queues, in line with new and often fluid guidelines and protocols from the authorities.

Two of the biggest questions facing retailers today are: How can the cost of physical stores be better managed, or better amplify the value they create? What can the role of the physical store be in their direct-to-consumer ecosystem?

A more personal shopping experience

In my view, the answer lies in making every shopping experience a personal one. As simple as this sounds, there are a few things to consider.

To start, a human interaction in a controlled environment should be the best and most immersive experience you ever get from a brand. On the flip side, many stores are not designed or configured to be highly experiential to take advantage of this. Of course, flagship stores go some way to curate a more experiential connection to the customer, but they are expensive to build and run.

shopping experience
Source: Shutterstock

What’s more, flagship stores are usually designed more for pure brand immersion, and not with service or even customer conversion in mind. And most flagship stores’ sales targets reflect this.

How then can the store footprint be balanced to become both experiential and differentiating at scale, while keeping costs under control and maintaining high customer conversion levels?

Transforming the customer experience using technology

Limited in-store accessibility pushed shoppers to e-commerce, forcing retailers to react by moving services like contactless payment, click-and-collect, buy-online-pickup-in-store (BOPIS) and delivery, to the forefront.

Before the pandemic, contactless services were a convenience factor for consumers—much like a drive-thru restaurant. Today, contactless channels provide the confidence to safely shop at a time when in-person interaction is viewed as a potential health risk. A global Mastercard study revealed that 75 percent of consumers in Asia Pacific said they would keep using contactless channels after the pandemic is over, citing safety and cleanliness as a key reason.

Physical and digital retail will no longer be separate entities, but part of one continuous and collective customer journey—and technology will play an integral role in driving this experience. At the same time, mobile services serve as the bridge between physical and digital commerce, allowing consumers to manage everything from building their cart, to ordering and scheduling a delivery or pickup whether they are online or in-store.

Source: Shutterstock

Self-service options in-store like self-checkout or migrating customers to online channels for customer service are some of the simpler ways to deploy digital technologies in the customer experience. Live streaming can virtually bring remote customers into the store, with store associates giving virtual tours, consultations or managing BOPIS orders in real-time.

Store environments can be optimised by making them more data-oriented and connected, so retailers can just as easily visualise how they are being utilised as they build their e-commerce stores. Retailers can measure footfall, traffic, purchases and other customer interactions by deploying IOT devices and video analytics and integrating systems.

Retailers can also contextualise inventory and the buying experience for the customer by using QR codes at shopping aisles to help educate them on product benefits, or to unlock special offers. In-store mapping can point customers in the right direction when searching for an item or recommend alternatives if a product runs out of stock.

Modernised point-of-sale (POS) can take payment beyond the register, putting scan-and-go directly into consumers’ pockets, with loyalty benefits or coupons tied directly to their e-wallets. At the same time, retailers can further empower employees to serve the customer better by putting customer profiles, customer relationship management (CRM) and loyalty information, order history as well as inventory data into the workforce’s hands.

Do not forget the back-office and supply chain

A boom in e-commerce shopping also means being fully equipped with the right tools to efficiently manage operations in a way that can meet consumer demand while managing overheads that come with delivery operations. At the very least, retailers should relook at their back-office processes with an eye towards digitisation, to automate and streamline operations and help free staff to spend more valuable time with customers.

supply chain
Source: Shutterstock

Next, retailers need to ensure supply chain processes are capable of handling crisis scenarios, while optimising for e-commerce profitability; the current pandemic certainly won’t be the last one we see over the next few decades.

Resiliency relies on retailers to build a connected, data-driven supply chain ecosystem, with a focus on demand planning, inventory visibility, fulfilment and returns optimisation. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning will serve to provide faster speed to insight, applied across the organisation to deliver data in real-time. Supply chain visibility also lets retailers make smarter decisions when balancing physical and digital within their overall operational strategy, enabling growth in a way that is both competitive and scalable.

Connected resilience

The bottom line is, to remain resilient in the years ahead, retailers must continue to build on data and AI capabilities for a seamless transfer of customer insights across the organisation. The future of retail is not siloed; retailers will benefit from integrating e-commerce, product, data, and supply chain platforms into one cohesive system that speaks to the entirety of the customer journey.

This pursuit will enable a true integration of digital and physical retail, while ensuring that the employee experience is evolving in line with the customer experience and supported by backstage operations. Essentially a shift to a way of thinking that considers how everything is orchestrated in the pursuit of perfect retail moments, wherever your customer starts or finishes their journey.


Tyler Munoz, Publicis Sapient


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