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

SAS INNOVATE Conference: All About ‘Agility’ And ‘Resilience’

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First let me say how great it is that technology companies are back in the business of conducting user conferences! April and May are usually very busy user conference months (because business people might be parents too, and school lets out in June), and so the entire retail technology industry convenes in places like Orlando or Las Vegas to hear each other’s stories. It’s all good – with the added energy that living in a post-pandemic world has created.

The SAS Innovate conference was convened on May 9th in Orlando, Florida. SAS Institute is a leader in data analytics, and the company has always been focused on the notion of enabling better decision making by turning data into actionable insights. SAS supports industries like Financial Services, Insurance, Banking, Healthcare, Manufacturing – in fact, any industry that has a lot of data to work with. And that includes Retail.

Because those are lucrative markets, SAS has a lot of competition (IBM, Microsoft, Salesforce, SAP, Oracle), so the question might be, what makes it different?

That question is answered with one word: focus. The company doesn’t sell transactional systems or an ERP. From its very beginnings, SAS has been about using mathematics (or more specifically, statistics) to analyze data that are generated by those systems to help decision makers identify trends and correlations to improve their processes and products. Over the years, the company has also steadily chipped away at bringing complex analytical methods to the masses with easy-to-use and highly graphical interfaces.

Now, because of the singularity of its focus, SAS finds itself being perfectly positioned as industries try to become more data-driven in their decisioning processes. Talk around the business world is all about data driven “agility” and “resilience”, especially by taking advantage of new analytics enabled by artificial intelligence (AI). SAS is ready – because AI is all about examining large amounts of data very quickly with math to find patterns and insights that could be important to decision makers. Essentially, the technology world has caught up with the vision that SAS has promoted for years: “curiosity is at the heart of human progress”.

That vision comes directly from the company’s founder, Dr. Jim Goodnight. At the conference, Dr. Goodnight talked about the company’s value in todays’ world, to “scale human performance and innovation, to make trusted decisions in moments that matter.” CTO Bryan Harris further amplified what that means in business today, to “outpace tomorrow”, or in more practical terms, “to move faster than the competition”.

That in essence is how SAS sees the “innovation” agenda – the ability to manage data, develop models, and deploy insights faster.

The Retail Sessions

My RSR partner Steve Rowen and I had the pleasure of moderating the retail track at the conference, and we got to hear great case studies that highlight how businesses are innovating with SAS data analytics.

Kelly Mahoney, Vice President of Customer Marketing at Ulta Beauty, talked about how her company is using analytics to create world-class experiences for its customers. Ulta’s story is about using data and analytics to create highly personalized value propositions, for example recommendations, replenishment reminders, new customer onboarding, personalized offers and messaging, and celebrating “key moments” (like birthdays). Such a strategy is greatly facilitated by its world-class loyalty program (95% of Ulta’s sales are generated by its over 40 million members of its loyalty program). The company is striving to execute a hyper-targeted, guest-first approach at every touchpoint along a consumer’s shopping journey (website, mobile app, push notifications, SMS, and email) – from pre- to post-purchase.

Kate Parker, Director of Pre-Sales Support at SAS, spoke about “Winning in a ‘Phygital’ World”. Kate used quotes from others to describe what phygital is: “Phygital (physical plus digital) is a marketing term that describes blending digital experiences with physical…” (Tech Target), that “…helps close that gap as a hybrid environment in which the physical in-store experience is fully integrated with the flexibility and convenience of online shopping” (Forbes), to “…enable personalized, immersive, and interactive shopping experiences for consumers and improve customer lifetime value for brands” (Nitin Kumar).

Kate highlighted how great brands such as Target, Nike, and Redwing Boots are able to unlock the power of their data, take advantage of the opportunity that a retail loyalty program offers in terms of data, and how they integrate data silos and ensure data is easily shared across consumer touchpoints.

Davis Wu, the Global Lead of Demand Planning and Analytics at Nestle’ S.A., shared how Nestle’ enables its demand planning strategy with data and advanced analytics at scale. Davis talked about how advanced analytics help the company to significantly increase SKU innovations and “renovations”, as well as address demand volatility. He specifically discussed how demand planning must encompass four “planning horizons”: Executional Horizon (1-6 weeks), Operational Horizon (7-26 weeks), Tactical Horizon (7-18 months), and Strategic Horizon (beyond 18 months).

Davis ended by pointing out that for the 70% of business processes that are repetitive, the objective is to adopt the best technologies to automate at scale, while that for the 20% of business processes that need improving, the objective is to adopt the right technologies to empower business users. And for the 10% of business processes where the company is looking for a breakthrough, Nestle’ is looking to rely on expert knowledge for innovation & creativity.

Bart De Muynck, the Chief Industry Officer at Project44, explained how Supply Chain visibility is an accelerator to an overall digital transformation strategy. He highlighted how supply chain issues such as geopolitical and socio-economic issues, weather disasters, new regulations, the labor crisis, near-shoring vs off-shoring, and the cashflow problems that result, underline the need for more resilient supply chains. Bart defined resiliency as, “the ability to respond quickly to operational disruptions through flexible contingency planning and forecasting – from material sourcing to logistics and the final delivery of products and services”.

According to Bart, a Supply Chain Intelligence Platform will enable end-to-end predictive visibility. Such a platform would help shippers to better understand routes & lanes, orders & inventory status, schedule milestones, analyze the digital twin of locations, and know asset status – all to improve estimations of the final destination. Agility driven by this kind of visibility allows organizations to respond more quickly to supply and demand side issues, for example, to redirect ocean shipments based on recent data and trends, or to reduce delays and exceptions by getting ahead of inventory constraints.

Finally, Jackie Long, the Director of Merchandise Process at Beall’s, shared how business process automation is impacting the company’s the bottom line. Jackie explained how the company implemented Auto Allocation to enable continuous processing nearly 24/7 in the DC’s and better ensure in-stocks of the right product at the right time in the stores. Jackie highlighted the organization change management process of going from a manual allocation to an auto-allocation process:

  • Communicating and setting expectations.
  • Honestly sharing issues and gaps.
  • Consistently tracking performance vs desired outcomes.
  • Celebrating the successes and have users share personal experiences.
  • Utilizing testing teams and let them help be spokespeople.

According to Jackie, Beall’s is just getting started. Future plans include using Al/ML to improve forecasting, and systematic identification of sales potential and then automatically increasing plans without user intervention. The objective is Plan Better – React Better.

The Wrap-up

For SAS and its customers, to “innovate” (the theme of the conference) is to use the insights derived from data to make better decisions, faster. The innovation in that is that it’s fundamentally a data-first approach, rather than a function-first approach. For SAS, that’s as natural as breathing – after all, that’s been the company’s perspective from its inception. For other companies it’s a big transition. But as the event’s case studies demonstrated, the change is happening.

Newsletter Articles May 16, 2023
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