The Candid Voice in Retail Technology: Objective Insights, Pragmatic Advice

2021 Was A Real Inflection Point

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Let’s face it: 2021 has been a hellacious year. After a year that saw people’s lives and the world economy completely upended by the global pandemic, there was hope that in 2021 we’d see an upturn as businesses reopened and people returned to their schools and workplaces, and to their favorite hangouts and stores. That kind of optimism is one of the great things about the human spirit, but any notion of a “return to normal” was immediately dashed by today’s realities.

I was talking to my 18-year-old grandson and his friends over the weekend about their college choices, and it occurred to me that those kids and their entire generation cannot remember a time when the world wasn’t in a state of crisis. Economic recession, crushing student debt, political polarization, escalating earnings inequity, social unrest, school shootings, natural disasters, global warming, and a global pandemic – that is their world. There aren’t a lot of “Leave It To Beaver” stories that newly minted adults can relate to, and stories about “the old normal” circa 2000 don’t mean anything to them.

But it’s not all doom-and-gloom. First and foremost, the new adults are digital natives; their world is the whole world. They have better access to more information than any generation in history – 24X7, any time and anywhere. And although I’m no sociologist, it does seem to me that young adults are more community and environmentally oriented than the hyper-materialistic over-achievers of my “Boomer” generation … and that’s a good thing. They know what they want and what they don’t, and are pretty intolerant of leaders and organizations that make hollow promises in exchange for their loyalty.

We at RSR have observed that the pandemic was an accelerator to changes that retailers already knew that they had to make to their business models in order to remain relevant in today’s world. All those changes can be summed up in one phrase: retailers realized that they had to embark on their own digital transformations. Of course, the reality is that the work to achieve those transformations will take years (the best example I can think of is what has to happen in the supply chain to achieve the kind of agility that the modern market demands), but if our research is any indication, resistance to that concept has dwindled to almost nothing.

But what that means at a societal level is that retailers are being forced to catch up with the incoming wave of adults – and that’s a good thing too.

Looking at the benchmarks that RSR published in 2021 tell the tale:

At the beginning of the year, we published a report on the state of workforce management entitled Outsmarting Change: How Retail Winners Succeed In Disruptive Times. At its conclusion, the report noted that, “it should be clear from this report that the workforce has changed, significantly, both in its role and in its importance. While some retailers may have paid lip service to the importance of a committed and empowered workforce in the past, the disruptions of 2020 have put a full exclamation point on it.

In February, we published Managing Through Disruptive Times With Data Driven Speed And Adaptability. The report concluded that, “Consumers want to shop in entirely new ways. These behaviors are not going to be temporary… the fact that so many are now living, working, and shopping in entirely different ways than they were even a year ago – and likely will be for the foreseeable future – has made them even more difficult to ‘delight’ during their paths to purchase. The ability to deliver the right product, at the right time, and now in the right manner will become only more important as time goes on.”

In June we released the benchmark, Retail eCommerce In Context: The Next Iteration. That study summarized the state of affairs in eCommerce this way:Retailers are recognizing that improving the customer experience is key to business growth. Customer experience matters today more than ever. To differentiate themselves, retailers recognize they need to make shopping easy, intuitive, and personalized. Further, they need to meet consumers where they are – and provide the ability to shop anywhere, anytime.”

In July, we published the fourth report in our series about how retailers are adopting “location intelligence”. The benchmark, entitled Creating Competitive Advantage With Location-Aware Processes, observed that “the rapid pace of change in the world today underscores the importance of location analytics as a key component in helping businesses achieve sustainable growth, greater operational effectiveness, resilience, and ultimately business success. … Successfully evolving business models … will require that businesses can see people, assets, and processes in real time – and then – be able to analyze what they’ve uncovered to improve both strategic and operational decisioning.”

In August, we published What Contactless Shopping Means For The Store, our second benchmark on how retailers were adapting to omnichannel order fulfillment in the store. We concluded that, “there is no such thing as ‘normal’ in the post-pandemic world. Those who can build in the flexibility to fulfill orders in new and non-traditional ways will perform better than those who don’t. Retailers already recognize how much more valuable customers that cross back and forth between the physical and digital worlds are.”

In November, RSR produced a timely look at the state of the supply chain, entitled Retail Supply Chain: Navigating Through Rough Waters With Improved Agility. We found that, “The state of the retail supply chain is more dire than it was even a year ago in spite of the challenges and opportunities we identified in 2020… <In 2020> Retailers generally acknowledged that the rigid supply chains of the past had to give way to more agile processes driven by real-time visibility into the flow of goods. But the retail world didn’t anticipate more disruptions caused by a resurgence of the COVID-19 virus, or of big changes in consumers’ appetite for more products in lieu of services. So, while order quantities for products have reached new highs, the supply chain’s ability to get them to market in a predictable and timely fashion has been severely undercut by a number of factors.”

This week, we conclude 2021 with a new report on the state of merchandise planning, entitled The Agile Merchandising Lifecycle In The Age Of Disruption. The report finds that, “Retailers need the increased margin that private label product provides, now more than ever… private label programs can be an excellent hedge against competitive price pressure and as an effective counter-measure against the rising costs associated with bringing products to market… Retailers – regardless of their size or power – need to come to terms with this reality sooner rather than later. Retailers also need much more flexibility in their general merchandise planning processes to be able to respond quickly to sudden changes in either supply or demand in these uncertain times.”

What to make of all this research? There are certain themes that are highlighted again and again: “disruption”, “speed”, “agile”, “flexible”, “real-time”, “sustainable”, “socially responsible”, etc. Taken as a whole, the message is that consumers – not businesses – are demanding change, and that it behooves retailers to understand where those consumers are going and what they care about – particularly the up-and-coming ones. This is at odds with the legacy “if we build it, they will come” model.

The year 2021 was when businesses finally seem to have gotten the message.

Newsletter Articles December 14, 2021
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