How the cloud showers retail with intelligence
Shopping has become a pastime, and it doesn't matter where you are thanks to mobility.
Dubai - Don't get dropped by shoppers; do your best to know your customers and give them best service
The Fourth Industrial Revolution has altered so many aspects of our lives that those providing goods and services are often dazed by the pace of change. How can we keep track? How can we keep up? How can we counter the disruption of newcomer competitors and their bold new business models?
Nowhere is digital disruption more visible than in the retail sector, one of the Arab Gulf's fastest-growing industries. The constantly changing expectations of customers create challenges for retailers on an almost weekly basis. Products have been rendered effectively incidental - consumers have access to such rich reservoirs of information that they know as much, if not more, about items on offer than companies and their employees. To stand out, retailers must be masters of the process, the experience, of buying. From discovery to purchase, and beyond, knowing the customer and broadening their engagement options are more important than ever before.
The GCC retail market is expected to recover in 2018, according to data from Alpen Capital. The sector is projected to reach a region-wide value of $313.2 billion by 2021, with the UAE taking a massive 53 per cent market share, followed by Saudi Arabia (14 per cent) and Oman (12 per cent). The report also surmised that, as demand increases, we can expect to see not only new e-tailers, but robust investment by existing players in their digital presence, as they jostle to compete with the emergence of the innovative customer experiences offered by newcomers.
Your future, your hands
The factors that drive such surges in demand (for example, rises in population and per-capita income, or increased tourism) may be outside the influence of retail businesses, but the extent to which they share in those opportunities is entirely in their hands. Digital transformation - the power to engage customers, empower employees, optimise operations and reinvent business models - can mean the difference between a winning customer experience and one that underwhelms and alienates.
Personalised customer experiences with omni-channel solutions are commonplace when retailers integrate specialised tools. The cloud allows businesses to aggregate data across every customer touchpoint and provide employees with rich insights through the intelligent edge, so they can build lasting, meaningful relationships with consumers.
Shopping has become a pastime; it is something we do while on a tea break or sitting in our living room. As a result, we, the consumer, have perfected the art and you, the retailer, need to rise to that challenge. Do you have the right TV in stock? Will you deliver and install it? Will you replace it with the minimal inconvenience if it should break? The product has become the experience, and the experience is what we buy. That is why today, Amazon's market value is greater than the world's eight largest retailers combined, when in 2006 Amazon's $17.5 billion market cap was dwarfed by that same group of eight's combined worth of $400 billion. Experience is king.
The intelligent cloud allows retailers to build almost any experience they can imagine - from simple recommendation engines driven by behavioural data, to virtual hands-on experiences with products. Even the largest retailers on the planet will be challenged to build personal relationships with each customer, so that when that consumer consumes, they will reach out to the brand they trust.
Business intelligence allows a salesperson in a brick-and-mortar store to know what a customer has bought before, what their preferences are, what their habits are. When funnelled to handheld devices in an easy-to-read visual format, this customer history empowers the employee to deliver relationship continuity. This is the model facilitated by the intelligent cloud: a brand with which every customer can interact, how they want, when they want; and an environment that allows every digital channel and employee to know each customer personally.
But beyond the fundamentals of relationship continuity, lie the possibilities of new technologies such as augmented reality, mixed reality and bots. For example, imagine the value in allowing customers to virtually interact with products, like using smart mirrors and facial-mapping technology that let them "try on" beauty products, or using specialised headsets that let customers "see" how furniture would look in their home. Consider the service-level improvements of incorporating natural-language bots into a support function, so that straightforward issues are resolved by machine, and thornier issues are given the attention they deserve by trained, professional humans.
The intelligent cloud delivers all of this and more, innovating on your behalf. And the best is yet to come.
The writer is Dynamics 365 group business director at Microsoft Middle East and Africa. Views expressed are his own and do not reflect the newspaper's policy.