2018 Review & Outlook

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2018 Review & Outlook

By Tim Denman - 12/18/2017

2017 is coming to a close, and for many retailers that is a good thing. The past 12 months will go down in the record books as the year of the store closing — with over 8,500 retail locations closing up shop. As consumers continue to embrace digital shopping, retailers are undergoing an adjustment period and are redefining the path to purchase and investing in cutting-edge technologies to reinvigorate the customer experience.

 With constant change as the backdrop, RIS News’ asked leading retailers, analysts and solution providers to comment on the 12 months ahead. We asked them one simple question: “What are the key themes, trends and technology that will define retail in 2018?” While the answers were as varied as the participants, a common message rings out in each response — 2018 will be all about the consumer.

 Whether in-store or online the retailers that are going the weather the volatile retail landscape and succeed in these highly competitive times must put the customer first. They need to find new and exciting ways to differentiate their brands from the competition and continue to invest in their digital capabilities to streamline and invigorate the shopping experience.

 Our panel of experts believes that redefining omnichannel strategies with a focus on unified commerce will remain a top priority for 2018 and beyond. A key aspect of that focus will be on reinvigorating the store with a heavy investment in IoT, RFID, fulfillment and mobility. In addition, cutting-edge solutions like artificial intelligence and voice-assisted shopping will continue to cement themselves into the retail tech stack and will forever change how consumers shop and engage with retailers.

What will the next 12 months bring for retail? No one knows for certain. But what is definite is the customer will remain front and center. 

Vicki Cantrell

Retail Transformation Officer, Aptos

It’s no surprise that customer experience will continue to be the defining factor for retail success in 2018. Retailers recognize that they must evolve from customer-centricity to customer-obsession as seamless, personalized shopping journeys are now table stakes.

And arguably, one of the most defining trends shaping retail in 2018 will be the transformation of traditional retail structures in order to support retail reinvention and omnichannel shopping journeys. Retailers need to rewrite their very DNA to be digital and experience-driven at the core. 

Investments will be made in technologies such as order management, integrated with CRM, point of sale, merchandising and e-commerce, to deliver the informed, empowered and seamless omnichannel shopping experiences that customers demand. 

Retailers recognize that winning shoppers will require them to win micro-moments, the day-to-day, intent-driven interactions that occur when a consumer instinctively picks up their smartphone. 

Micro-moments are fast becoming the prerequisite to in-store and online experiences — retailers have no choice but to get mobile right.

Mobile-first strategies will help ensure that they are part of the journey when shoppers turn to their devices to discover, research and buy. Retailers will invest to ensure that they add value and advance the journey.

As consumers’ dependency on mobile continues to increase, so too will retailers’ dependency on data. Data-driven retailing will be more than a catchphrase in 2018 — it signals a sweeping change from the recent past when data was predictive to a new era where data becomes prescriptive.

While online retailers are accustomed to real-time analytics that fuel real-time decisions, brick and mortar has relied on trailing data that offers very little insight on what a customer expects “right now.” With prescriptive analytics (often fueled by mobile interactions), retailers can respond proactively to everyday store situations with actionable insights that greatly impact the customer experience — and bottom line.

Robert Hetu

Research Director, Gartner Retail Industry Services 

Themes and trends for 2018 reflect the existential threat to many retailers, caused by digitally enabled consumers, new entrants and new business models in the market. Retailers’ fear of market share destruction is clearly top of mind but may cloud focus on the very priorities that will directly contribute to their protection and growth. 

While growing market share is an appropriate strategic concern, more important are the components of the business that enable success or failure. The method to deliver market share growth is by providing an exceptional customer experience, based on what the customer values, and designing a digital business transformation project that will help to deliver the appropriate customer experience.

To deliver unified retail commerce, a retailer’s customer-facing processes across all of its channels must be unified, providing an exceptional customer experience. These customer processes should be defined in their most basic terms — search/research, transact, fulfill and consume — all passing through the lens of customer experience. Today’s retailers must understand, enable and enhance customer lifestyles. To support unified retail commerce, retailers must unify execution of customer-facing processes to improve the customer’s experience.

Technology is an enabler of exceptional customer experiences. Each of these will play an important role in enabling a delightful and differentiated customer experience:

BI/analytics. This will increasingly be the backbone that supports all retail executional activities.

Internet of Things. In store or in the home, IoT will provide highly valuable information and enable the path to purchase.

Artificial intelligence. AI will accelerate the speed and accuracy of retail decision making well past current levels.

Cloud. Cloud will provide the flexibility organizations need to adapt to new business models quickly.

Mobility. Mobile devices, including those as part of automobiles and other non-traditional sources will dominate transactions
in the future.

Sahal Laher

Chief Digital Officer and CIO,
Destination XL Group

Artificial intelligence is obviously a big buzzword right now, but there is really something there. There are numerous use cases that can leverage this technology. I think the imminent one that will gain traction in 2018 is leveraging it to drive better personalization. It is all about trying to find a way to differentiate the customer experience. With machine learning and artificial intelligence you can do a lot more than what was possible in the past. Retailers no longer have to rely on stale information. With up-to-the-minute insight, retailers can take their personalization efforts to the next level. 

Another key area that retailers continue to work on is mobile engagement. Mobile conversion is half of desktop conversion. As traffic drives more and more toward mobile, you cannot just stand pat. Retailers need to find a way to drive that mobile experience to the next level otherwise sales will suffer. 

That means things like infusing voice and voice search and a seamless checkout experience. If the only capability you are providing a customer in your mobile app is commerce then forget it, you have missed the mark. Maybe customers will download your app, but no one wants to clutter their phone with 20 different retailer apps. You will see a new generation of mobile websites. These progressive web apps are starting to roll out. They are mobile sites that have the look and feel of an app without having to download
the app. 

Jeff Neville

Vice President, Boston Retail Partners

With store closings up 218% during 2017 and competitive pressure increasing from Amazon and Walmart, changes are occurring quickly and will continue to accelerate through 2018. We see three major trends affecting retail over the next year: voice-assisted shopping, artificial intelligence and same-day delivery.

Voice-assisted shopping. With an estimated 55 million individuals in the U.S. using voice-enabled digital assistants at least monthly this year and Amazon Echo estimated to have an install base of more than 128 million by 2020, voice assistants will become the norm. Voice assistants are replacing traditional search engines and offer an easy hands-free way to shop, especially for basics. Retailers need to accelerate their plans to integrate their offerings with voice-assisted technology to meet this demand.

Artificial intelligence. According to BRP’s “2017 Customer Experience/Unified Commerce Survey,” 45% of retailers plan to utilize AI within three years to enhance the customer experience. AI offers the ability to exploit the data gathered on customers and their preferences to personalize their shopping experience. Amazon and other multi-channel retailers are already experimenting with AI to offer purchasing suggestions based on short surveys and purchase history. 

Same-day delivery. Consumers’ preference for convenience and immediate gratification drives this trend. Consumers would rather receive merchandise at home than drive to a store, but they also want their products immediately. The number of retailers offering same-day delivery has tripled in the past year to meet elevated customer expectations. Retailers are testing different ways to effectively execute same-day delivery: Walmart is utilizing store associates to perform the delivery while other retailers are using third-party delivery services like Deliv, Postmates or Uber. 

To stay competitive, retailers are transforming their business models, skills and cultures to experiment with and adopt these
new trends.

Edward Park

Senior Vice President of Retail & Digital, 

North America, GUESS Inc. 

The role of the brick-and-mortar store is in flux. As many retailers face unpredictable foot traffic, long and expensive leases, and increasing pressure from shareholders it may appear that an easy fix is to write the store off. However, the store is still the central hub of brand experience, it is where customers engage, connect, and fall in love with your brand. From the perspective of experiencing your brand — the store reigns supreme. Retailers will continue to invest in the transformation of their stores to connect that invaluable hub of experience, which is especially relevant to Millennial and Gen Z shoppers, with the technology that is pervasive in the life of today’s connected consumer. 

Customers are demanding simple and seamless experiences across traditional channels (store and e-commerce) and through now-pervasive social channels. Retailers must be able to not only deliver on customer expectations but also differentiate on their ability to provide a tailored and relevant experience to their shoppers at the right place and time.

Retailers must deliver personalized experiences to their customers in real-time — a fraction of a second may as well be a lifetime to today’s shopper. Real-time data visibility and having full visibility on the entire consumer journey is essential to making decisions, as well as delivering on customer expectations, and will continue to be a major focus over the next 12 months and beyond.

Paula Rosenblum

Co-Founder and Managing Partner,
RSR Research

I see a real split in the “as you like it” retail economy. On the one hand, voice-activated commerce (v-commerce, I guess) will continue to expand. Consumers will use these devices to control more and more features of their homes, and will expand their use for low-consideration product shopping.

On the other hand, I see a real reinvigoration of the store. Retailers have recognized that the key to a successful and profitable store is a differentiated experience, and a big part of
that differentiation is knowledgeable employees. They will continue adding payroll and employee-facing technologies, but their unwillingness to provide training time means tech vendors will have to create consumer-grade user experiences for
in-store employees.

On the technology front, artificial intelligence/computer learning will continue to seep into analytics and forecasting, but at a far slower rate than is expected. Microservices will become the buzzword of the year and proving that a vendor is actually using them will be challenging. Blockchain will be the subject of many conversations and few implementations. 

In the world of retail verticals, grocers will continue to deal with the impact of omnichannel in their world (thank you, Amazon), and department stores will continue to struggle to regain relevancy. 

Finally, 2018 will be the year retailers get more efficient at omnichannel operations. Until now, those operations have been held together with the equivalent of baling wire and chewing gum. Retailers will spend the money they need to spend to redefine processes and systems and make omnichannel finally profitable.

Kevin Sterneckert

GVP Innovation Strategies,
JDA Software Inc.

I expect the right sizing of retail will continue through 2018 with more store closings and openings. Shifts in consumer behavior will continue to direct change in the retail landscape. A consistent theme has emerged and will continue to drive retail success. Winning retailers offer differentiated experiences while removing friction across the entire value chain.

Investments by retailers will include edge technologies with a focus on reducing the cost to fulfill while reaching for a seamless, transparent and immediate digital twin of the physical supply chain. Further, I see an accelerated adoption of technologies that deliver scalable personalization. I believe technologies like RFID and other IoT sensors will move beyond aspiration and begin to drive real value that fuels competitive opportunities. 

Many retailers are testing these technologies — 2018 will be the year where many of these tests convert to full enterprise implementations. Unfortunately, the level of technology investments required to meet consumer expectations may not seem feasible
for retailers. 

I believe 2018 will be a year where a clear divide will become obvious between retailers who are investing and those who are hoping to weather the storm of change. I predict we will point to 2018 as a tipping point year for retailers who are investing across the enterprise to deliver broad and deep personalization with increased speed to fulfill while reducing costs to serve. The leading retailers have become very good at driving impressive consumer satisfaction with near frictionless experiences. Retailers who are not able to keep up will experience significant consumer erosion.