This year has given the entire planet a once-in-a-century pandemic, along with all of the disruption and monumental changes from the individual level to the international level, forcing a more flexible and agile approach.
The retail industry is very much core to the world’s commerce network, and has been deeply affected. However, lots of brands and retailers have managed to navigate the disruptive waters and prevailed against the odds… some have even thrived among the choppy waters.
What these companies have in common is the increasing use and focus on developing artificial intelligence, including Einstein Predictive Vision, which is part of the ecommerce platform Salesforce Commerce Cloud. They have also applied AI to other areas of business and strategy beyond helping customers. So let’s look at some successful adaptors of AI this year, and how it’ll shape things for the following year.
Working in harmony
Of the more successful brands and retailers this year – who managed to maintain and bolster customer loyalty and sustain sales – they put in place a retail model that was harmonized, prioritizing customers and adapting operations to not only satisfy their wants but also maintain healthy levels of stock for more in-demand items. Satisfying this, omnichannel is the ideal model for sales surrounded by a robust and relevant communication strategy.
In addition to retail models, the big gainers of 2020 shook up what is commonly called their “human capital management” – i.e. how they care for their employees. This includes aiding them with artificial intelligence to help deal with customer issues and queries – such as the Salesforce Commerce Cloud platform; keeping regular and relevant communication regarding the ongoing pandemic and how it’s affecting the company; and ensuring the safety and wellbeing of their employees.
Leaning into 2021, the past 12 months have doubled down on the notion that the only constant is change. The best brands tackle obstacles whenever they appear. Having your commerce strategy line up with your employee strategy (or as the robots call it, “human capital management”) sing in harmony is how they win – both in times of relative tranquility as well as times of crises.
One revelation to come out of the pandemic has been the new normal way of working; having more workforces that are remote means that artificial intelligence – and more broadly technology – is going to play an even more important role in how teams work and how companies organize and manage.
The ongoing rise of ecommerce
Digital sales has acted as a lifebuoy in the rough commerce waters of 2020 for the retail industry. As we have seen since March, and continue to see during the holiday shopping season that ends the year, ecommerce is the only fuel that has kept brands and retailers going.
On the other end of the spectrum, those brands that have avoided infrastructure updates and chain-supply channels – whether out of a lack of resources or that digital just wasn’t prioritized – have struggled to stay afloat and have recorded sustained losses. To put it bluntly, those who focussed on ecommerce before the pandemic or who quickly readjusted to the new normal of “all digital all the time” have been better equipped to dealing with the huge challenges we’ve been facing.
The year 2021 is expected to be the recovery year for retail – in terms of reaching pre-pandemic total sales, particularly the important in-store sales of which retailers heavily rely on. Yet the last year has resulted in particular consumer habits to form and stick. Shoppers have already signalled their intention to carry on what they’ve been doing. More specifically, 85% of consumers who have started to buy groceries online during the pandemic intend to continue to maintain this habit after the pandemic.
Over the years ecommerce has been advancing; online sales have been eating up more and more of the total sales pie. Heading into 2021, those that embrace new technologies such as artificial intelligence – in the name of boosting their ecommerce numbers in addition to recovering their in-store sales – will be rewarded.
Taking care of your own
It is said from ancient times that meaningful customer experiences begin with equally meaningful employee experiences. A team that is well taken care of is a team that takes care of its customers. This has been particularly acute since the emergence of the pandemic. Millions of workers have faced tough working conditions – unable to work from home, have faced a loss of working hours, and even loss of employment.
Times have been challenging, and the way in which brands and retailers have communicated to their workforce has been a key part in how they’re dealing with the situation. Tech has been implemented to facilitate easier communication. For example, more effective scheduling tech and on-demand payment solutions that enables workers to get paid when they need it the most. If you treat your staff like numbers they’re more likely to treat your customers like numbers.
2021 will be another year in which brands look to take increasing care of its workforce. Instilling confidence in them, and a general feeling of wellbeing, will be a priority in the coming 12 months. 2021 may be the year in which vaccines are rolled out, along with a sense of hope of returning to stability, but it’s still going to be a year of the unknown; a year of unpredictability.
Not only does this increase the likelihood of having a more motivated workforce, and more willingness to put in 100% each day, but it also gives a boost in recognition outside of the company within its market segment. And so next year, companies ought to continue in this direction, to further integrate tech to prepare and manage the shifting environment of everything from consumer habits to workforce needs.
Fresh ways of working
When the waves of cases hit the country early in 2020, almost all retailers had to shut up shop, before reopening in a limited capacity, including a reduction in staff numbers both temporary and permanent.
With these new measures in place, they had to find new ways of serving customers and normalize them. And such changes have led to the need to develop work models that are more collaborative. Think about it, store employees are so used to greeting customers walking into the store, helping them navigate the aisles, and aiding them with purchases. Such close points of contact between your brand and your customers are difficult to replicate digitally. So how can employees recreate those magic personal moments of the shopping experience?
Those of the workforce once populating shops are now helping virtually, helping customers along their online shopping journeys. This has meant employees have had to retrain and shift their specializations to adapt to the new state of things.
In order to work out where the company needs more attention and where it requires less, brands can take advantage of effective workforce management tech to highlight where the gaps are in skill distribution, and can also help with retraining staff through learning platforms.
Flexibility in employee skills is going to be vital for retailers to thrive in the near future. Next year we expect this broadening development of skills to continue and deepen, spreading to even more companies and sectors. Like we mentioned before, for millions in the workforce, their hours have been severely impacted. Skill flexibility is set to be a more common practice. Meanwhile, talent sharing will enable brands to redistribute talent across locations in order to help out.
So there you have it. We’ve laid out some of the deeper trends to have emerged this year as a result of the pandemic. And while some of the trends may have emerged out of necessity given the restrictions in place, they are trends that are likely to be cemented in the following year to get the most out of retail employees, and adapt to the shifting patterns in consumer behavior.
PS: UV is one of the world’s leading Salesforce Commerce Cloud (Demandware) development & strategy teams. Contact us to see how we can work together.