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

NRF Chapter One Continued: More Good Stuff

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If you’ve been attending the virtual version of NRF’s annual big show, you know that this year has been different – really different. Still, despite a lot of repetitious messaging throughout many of the sessions (about just how different daily life has become for us all amidst the pandemic), there has been some really good content, as well.

The folks at enVista had a very clever idea for their session, leveraging the format of the virtual world to their advantage. Rather than just try and replicate what a typical in-person, moderator-led panel of Q&A with CIO-types would look and feel like, this “fireside chat” about omnichannel transformation was presented in the style of a tv crime show: the interviewer (Gene Bornac, enVista’s Chief Strategy Officer) could be seen and heard, while the panelists were treated as members of the witness protection program: unidentified, picture obscured, and able to speak far more freely than they ever could at any in-person event. I thought it was brilliant.

Both executives involved represented multinational retailers with thousands of store-based locations worldwide, with one adding that his company specified in health and wellness products.  Both also had to make rapid transformations – and therefore very difficult decisions – in time frames far shorter than anyone would ever want to starting in March, 2020. For retailer #1, that timeframe was particularly painful, as it had a roadmap detailing the transition from brick and mortar to omnichannel selling planned for the next 2-4 years. All it had in place at the time the pandemic struck was a few ship-from- store relationships – and not much more. Retailer #2 was only in a slightly better place, as its latest roadmap had included rolling out a new order management system by mid-June of 2020. But for both retailers, the best laid plans were dramatically altered at the onset of the pandemic.

Retailer #2’s leadership team abandoned all other priorities and established a single goal to ensure survival: that all roads must now lead to digital. After rigorous eCom testing, they set about creating a true omnichannel solution to deliver store goods direct to consumers. Nine weeks later? They were live, and now have over 900 stores that can support this feature.

Retailer #1, by way of comparison, already had all kinds of supply chain issues before the pandemic even began – particularly with products it was sourcing from overseas. As a result, it had already begun looking at the impact of utilizing more domestic factories, so when the pandemic struck, it became a “very natural process” to start incorporating input from groups like Store Operations (who would traditionally be much more “methodical about change”). In his own words, all procedure went out the window, and the typical business decisions were replaced with a “emotional decisions” required to make the changes necessary for survival.

Because of the universal impact of COVID-19 on every supplier and partner, there was something of a joint accountability effect that occurred. “We went through every strategic and financially-significant  relationship that we had and partnered with those organizations that that could help us modify cashflow in order to be able to execute on the operational day-to-day.” But as he noted, when you’re trying to go from zero ship from store capability to hundreds of stores having that functionality in a matter of months, there had to be some “very, very intense conversations about the right investments, the right places to spend money, and the right places to conserve money on how to get through.”

And one of the absolute best sessions I’ve seen so far (and content is still ongoing this week) was a conversation between NRF’s Susan Reda and Dax Dasilva, Founder and CEO of Lightspeed. If you don’t know the company, think of them as a vendor who wants to be the go-to source for any and everything a small retailer will ever need – and not just from the technology perspective.

Lightspeed’s typical client does roughly $600k USD in annual sales, might have a store or two (a few have dozens, but most are more likely to have strong online presence), and sells anywhere from a handful to 100K different SKUs. The company has a client list of over 100,000 merchants worldwide, and their clients are very often selling apparel or sporting goods.

If you’re thinking, “What makes this a different story than Shoppify?”, consider this:

Though the vendor started with a POS designed specifically designed for small to mid-size retail, it quickly realized such businesses have unique challenges across the board. So it moved into helping with other issues in both the physical and digital spaces, including eCommerce operations, as well as traditional and contactless payments. But a few year’s back, Dasilva noticed that fewer banks were lending to SMB retailers, so the company now offers capital lending services to its clients, as well. “We step in there, to help retailers meet their financial needs, not just with technology and software.”

In the coming 18 months, Lightspeed will be prioritizing its “supplier network,” an initiative designed to help 1) SMB merchants to have access to better images and product catalog data and 2) suppliers to SMB retailers better ordering information.

For example, one of Lightspeed’s client, a mom-and-pop bicycle retailer in Texas, used to have to crawl the web to find information about the products he was selling: hours spent every week to figure out what content to post to his own site. Now he gets a catalog from the supplier, guaranteeing all photos and content on his store site are correct – but also simplifying his ordering process, making the supplier want to deal with an SMB retailer a lot more than it currently might.

What made all of this so fascinating to me was the timing of it – clearly when Dasilva was dreaming up the idea of this company back in 2012, no one could have predicted the unfathomably challenging moment small retailers would be having right now. Here at RSR, we’ve been having spirited debates since last March about whether or not the lessons learned from COVID-19 would bring about a renewed loyalty on the part of shoppers – long-term – to smaller, independent retailers. And nearly a year later, the question rages on: will shoppers remember how important these businesses are to their local communities once we’re all vaccinated? The optimist withing leans towards yes, whereas the cynic believes cost-savings will drive consumers’ every decision even more than it did pre-pandemic. Only time will tell.

But as the CEO so aptly pointed out, “They’ve got to be great in store and online. They’ve got to be great on social media. They’ve got to be great on product. That’s their opportunity, and that’s how they’ll have to differentiate.”

Here’s to hoping we all don’t have such short memories, and that we recognize how important small businesses really are to who we are as communities.

Newsletter Articles January 19, 2021
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