Preparing for the Future of Retail

Introduction

As with any industry, the problems retailers face change as technology solves old problems while creating new ones. The introduction of eCommerce sites and marketplaces, combined with the  advent of shopping via social media, has made shopping easier than ever for the consumer. This of course, benefits retailers, but it’s also created a much more complicated retail landscape that only continues to grow in complexity as technology advances. 

The new retail reality is one of constant evolution, and we might not yet even know the problems of tomorrow. What we do know is that the industry is rapidly changing and the retailers that will succeed are those that can change their operations quickly and with ease.

Problems like inventory management have been a part of retail since the dawn of the industry, but how retailers address them has changed—and will continue to change. In this guide, we will explore retail before omnichannel, the tools and strategies brands need to survive in today’s landscape, and how to future-proof your operations with agility, control, and efficiency.

Exploring Retail Before Omnichannel

We can gain insight into the evolution of the retail landscape by looking at some of the major issues retailers face today, how these same problems were managed in the past, and why these old methods are no longer viable. Inventory management is a prime example of an operational challenge long known to retailers of all sizes. While the problem remains the same, solutions of the past aren’t built for the rapid change and fast growth today’s retailers face.

In the past, a retailer operated out of a single location. There was no need for a website with the same look and feel as their brick-and-mortar, and no need for tracking inventory across multiple channels or locations. In other words, there was no need for an omnichannel strategy because omnichannel wasn’t a goal, or even a concept.  Opportunity wasn’t as great in terms of brand recognition, expansion, and financial gain. The great trade off retailers face today is, while it’s much more difficult to run an omnichannel business than a single brick and mortar or even website, those that do it successfully have much to gain.

Retailers Are Still Using Old Tools and Processes

Inventory is expensive and so is the time spent managing it. Knowing what to purchase and in what quantity has long been the bane of existence for many retailers, and it’s only exacerbated by multichannel selling.

Spreadsheets

Spreadsheets were perfectly fine for tracking inventory in one or perhaps even two locations, but they aren’t sustainable in an omnichannel strategy. Since inputting data into a spreadsheet is a manual task, they’re error prone and time consuming. However, many retailers—even mid-sized to large retailers selling through many channels—are still using spreadsheets to track their inventory.

ERPs

Those who realize early that spreadsheets can’t accommodate fast growth have often turned to traditional enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems for inventory management. It can take months or even years to fully implement an ERP, not to mention a minimum investment starting at hundreds of thousands of dollars. And, while it is easier to stay organized with an ERP than with spreadsheets, they don’t accommodate for scale and they do many things with limited capacity.

Your business can only move as fast as its slowest component. An always-on retail landscape requires agility across all departments. Many retailers with ERPs or other legacy systems find their operations team can’t keep up with marketing or merchandising. Executing on these teams’ requests might necessitate the development of new operational workflows, which could require custom programming. When the request is validated weeks later, the marketing and/or merchandising teams are already onto the next sale, promotion, or goal. The operations team cannot keep pace with the teams that are innovating in order to move and sell inventory. Retail is moving faster than ever, and it’s absolutely imperative that backend, operational processes are built flexibly.

Today’s retailers need to be agile, and neither spreadsheets nor ERPs allow brands to move quickly when they expand into new markets, experience rapid growth, hire new employees, or make any other operational changes.

Legacy Systems Aren’t Built for Omnichannel

With spreadsheets, ERPs, and other legacy systems, retailers were able to manage inventory, and their businesses, in the world before omnichannel. Even at the start of the eCommerce era, some lightweight solutions offered by accounting, eCommerce, or POS platforms were efficient. But now, with consumer shopping habits often changing, none of these solutions provides retailers with the agility they need to survive.

Of the need for retailers to switch to cloud-based applications from hard to manage legacy systems, Stitch Labs CEO, Brandon Levey, said, “By adopting integrated, cloud-based inventory management software, businesses can easily and accurately track stock across multiple sales channels from purchase orders and sales invoices to shipping and fulfillment. Top inventory control systems automatically sync with e-commerce platforms and tools, providing a centralized and fully connected command center to proactively streamline, manage and analyze retail operations.”

For inventory management, as with many other operational processes that make up a retail business, times are changing—and retailers must be nimble in order to succeed.

A Changing Landscape Means Different Problems—And Different Solutions

The biggest change to retail in the past decade has unsurprisingly been the rise of eCommerce. Consumers want to shop where and whenever they want, and more than a quarter of them are unwilling to wait more than two days for delivery.

Today’s consumer choice economy demands that retailers are everywhere their customer is, but with this always-on, multichannel business model comes new challenges.

Over the past year, we’ve read numerous headlines alluding to the fall of retail. In reality, consumers are spending more than ever, with 66 percent of GDP coming from retail consumption and 33 percent of consumers shopping online at least once per week. Retail sales are up 5.6 percent year over year even in spite of news that many major retailers are closing doors. Despite this good news for retailers, shopping habits are changing so drastically and so rapidly that the major retail brands making headlines can’t keep up. The reason we’re seeing so many major retailers close stores and lose revenue is not only due to operational inefficiencies, but also because they aren’t speaking the language of today’s customer, which is one of personalization.

The New Retail Reality

When it comes to shopping, consumers have more power than ever before. They’re shaping retail buying experiences and increasingly want the ability to buy anything, from anywhere, at any time. They expect seamless, multichannel experiences, simple payment processes, fast delivery, and easy returns.

This year, the retail industry reached a tipping point. On Black Friday, online sales surpassed $3 billion and Black Friday became the first day in retail history to drive over $1 billion in mobile revenue. ECommerce and multichannel customer experiences are no longer just trends; they are essential for sustainable retail growth.

This is the new retail reality, and it leaves room for brands to either struggle or soar. Some brands will let this environment be a barrier to growth while others will leverage it as an opportunity. The brands who refuse to adapt will fail and the brands that focus on implementing processes and strategies to meet these evolving customer demands will succeed.

Take Ralph Lauren, for example. While Ralph Lauren remains a strong brand, it has failed to react quickly enough to the consumer choice economy. Over the past two years, their sales have plateaued and profits have declined by 50 percent. As a result, the 50-year-old iconic brand is closing about 10% of its stores and eliminating 1,000 jobs. And they’re not alone. There are countless examples of brands that were thriving on the traditional retail model that have begun to decline with the rise of online, mobile, and social commerce.

But, for every brand falling behind, there’s a door opening for newer, more tech- and customer-forward brands to excel. Take LA streetwear brand Young & Reckless, for example. After launching in 2009, they quickly grew into a national brand with celebrity endorsements, distribution in over 3,000 retail stores, and $31 million in revenue last year. They’ve expanded into new brands and new channels and their growth shows no signs of slowing down. So, what is at the core of this shift? What do brands like Young & Reckless understand that behemoths like Ralph Lauren don’t?

How to Build a Future-Proofed Technology Stack

It may sound obvious, but the reason some brands are succeeding while others fail is because they’re putting customer happiness first. To do this well in today’s retail landscape, brands need to consider how their backend operations affect the customer experience. It’s no longer enough to have cheerful customer support and ship the right item; customers want and expect more. They not only want to shop how, when, and where they want, they also want you to remember them—reducing the time they spend at checkout and personalizing the shopping experience for them.

Optimizing Your Backend for Customer Happiness

Smaller, tech-forward brands understand that how well they manage their inventory and operations directly impacts their customers’ happiness. The ability to have the product(s) your customer want, when they want it, where they want it, and how quickly they want it, can make or break your customer experience and, ultimately, your growth.

The more complex a retailer’s operations become—and you can bet they’re complex for a brand as large as Ralph Lauren—the more siloed, out-of-control, and inefficient they can become. While this is exacerbated by growing pains, brands are thinking ahead and finding solutions to scale with them as they grow in reputation and sales.

When businesses start to grow rapidly, their inventory often becomes less accurate, which can lead to costly issues. Adopting a flexible and scalable inventory and operations solution to accurately track and manage increasing order volume across all sales channels can help brands automate and optimize their inventory.

In order to compete in this new retail reality, brands must unshackle themselves from antiquated systems and processes that perpetuate inefficiencies. Inventory is your most important asset, and managing it well is the difference between your business’ success or failure.

In addition to managing your inventory, you’ll need to optimize other key functions of your business like where and how you sell your products as well as how you fulfill orders.

Personalization is Key

Most businesses under-invest in customer loyalty, putting all of their eggs in the new customer acquisition basket. While this approach may work well in the early days of a business, it can be detrimental for scaling later.

In order to set your business up for future success, you’ll want to think early on about a backend system that will scale with you. You’ll also want to think about today’s first time customers who you hope will become tomorrow’s loyal brand advocates. As you grow in resources, you can consider many types of loyalty programs that will help you track and analyze customer behaviors and reward repeat purchases. If you’re starting out, there are simpler—yet still scalable—ways to personalize the customer experience.

Customizing gifts based on the product someone buys is a thoughtful—yet realistic—way to make a customer feel warm and fuzzy about your brand. Chubbies, a clothing brand with an emphasis on the weekend lifestyle known for their colorful shorts and hilariously quirky marketing campaigns figured out a way to send gifts without breaking the bank.

With their target customer in mind, they created add-on gifts like branded koozies, coasters, and baseball cards that fit within their lifestyle theme but are significantly less expensive than sending an additional item of clothing. The gifts can match the purchases, too. For example, sending sunscreen when someone buys a swimsuit, or golf tees when a customer purchases golf shorts. This program is able to delight the customer in a personalized way, without having to know personalized information about the customer.

In automating this process, they can quickly swap out a gift that isn’t garnering excitement and track orders so customers don’t receive the same gift twice. Their customers are surprised and delighted to receive add-ons and their loyal social media followers will often post their latest gift, thus increasing brand awareness in addition to fostering loyalty.

How to Succeed With Optimization and Personalization

There is clearly a lot to think about when establishing a foundation for a future-proofed retail business. In order to be successful today while planning for tomorrow, you need to be nimble.

We’ve discussed some of today’s trends but we can only guess what consumers will want tomorrow—you need the ability to change with them and the opportunity to test new ideas.

To build a nimble business, you need efficiency, agility, and control. When you manage your backend operations, like inventory, efficiently, you maximize your sales potential without menial, outdated processes. Agility is imperative to ambitious growth, which requires organization. Finally, know what you have and where you have it so you have the control and visibility you need to push your business forward. With these three pillars in mind, you can put in place a sturdy foundation that allows you to respond quickly to changing demand.

Conclusion

As with any industry, the problems retailers face change as technology solves old problems while creating new ones. The new retail reality is one of constant evolution, and we might not yet even know the problems of tomorrow. What we do know, however, is that the industry is rapidly changing and the retailers that will succeed are those that can change their operations quickly and with ease.

A centralized operations platform like Stitch Labs gives retailers comprehensive visibility into their historical data so they can more easily and effectively make and communicate their decisions regarding inventory. Stitch syncs inventory across all of a retailer’s channels, making it easier to ensure inventory is in the right place at the right time. This visibility reduces out-of-stocks and overstocking, allowing for more efficient planning and optimized business decisions regarding pricing and allocation.

About Stitch Labs

Stitch Labs is an inventory and order management platform that centralizes inventory, sales, purchasing, and fulfillment to give retailers greater visibility, efficiency, insight, and control across their business. With the power of Stitch’s cloud-based platform, retailers and wholesalers can more easily reduce costs, maximize profitability, and intelligently scale their omnichannel operations to meet customers needs. Stitch integrates with top eCommerce, POS, shipping, and fulfillment technologies such as Amazon, eBay, Shopify, Magento, Bigcommerce, ShipStation, Square, FBA, SPS Commerce, and DCL Logistics, as well as accounting solutions including Quickbooks, Xero, and inDinero. To learn more, visit www.stitchlabs.com or follow us on Twitter at @StitchLabs.

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