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GUEST COMMENT How retailers can use analytics to help navigate the current and future challenges posed by Covid-19

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The face of retail as we know it was thrown upside-down almost overnight as a result of the Covid- 19 pandemic. While governments and health organisations focused their efforts on minimising the spread and impact of the outbreak, retailers also had to face an entirely new set of challenges that altered their entire business model, possibly for good. For retailers who were lucky enough to continue operating with an online presence, this meant navigating supply chain operations, managing demand surges and interacting with customers in new ways.

Unfortunately, many, from large chains to independent high street boutiques, were forced to close or were impacted profoundly as a result of this shift. Retailers across all markets have not only had to weather the short-term storm, but also future-proof their business for long-term uncertainties in consumer confidence, maintaining delivery services and navigating an economic downturn.

Of course, no two retailers are the same. Supermarkets, for example, have been at the front-line, supplying essential items to key workers and those of us confined to our homes during lockdown. However, the majority of retail businesses have felt inevitable strain and uncertainty as the customer experience is reframed for the new reality we find ourselves in. Physical footfall has naturally slowed to a crawl, accelerating the shift for many businesses towards omnichannel strategies that can shield them from Covid-related unpredictability for years to come.

As retailers have had no choice but to adapt their strategies, they have become increasingly reliant on data-driven insights to shed light on consumer shopping behaviours and many other crucial metrics. In a time of fluctuating demand and a disrupted supply chain, data can be the necessary single source of truth for retail businesses.

A brand-new customer experience

As retailers begin to return to a semblance of normality, many have used data insights to learn about customers’ online shopping behaviour during lockdown. With most of us turning to online shopping during this time, retailers have a wealth of data at their fingertips to create a more personalised customer experience in both the physical and digital worlds.

These two worlds have been converging for years, but the balance has been skewed dramatically by the events of the last five months. Almost all retailers analyse and optimise the performance of each of their online and in-store channels separately, but it is often harder to understand the relationship between digital and physical store sales. This is where data platforms come in, providing retailers with a holistic view of both ‘clicks’ and ‘bricks’ in a way that allows them to cushion the impact of decreased physical footfall or increased online traffic.

Many analysts have identified a striking change in customer loyalty in the current environment, which is another challenge that retailers must meet head-on. Consumers are less tethered by location in their buying decisions, so offering a personalised customer experience has never been more urgent.

Using data to understand how and when your online products sell is especially key, and can help you uncover actionable insights into why certain product lines are performing better than others, for example. Understanding who your customers are and how they like to shop will help you generate tailor-made offers, and increase engagement and spending.

In these times, it is also even more crucial to ensure you’re interacting with customers through the right social media and marketing channels at the right time. Data can allow you to maximise your marketing spend by uncovering which channels bring in the most conversions, and which campaigns most effectively encourage users to act.

Adapting your in-store environment

Since the beginning of July, we’ve seen the gradual return of customers to the high street, and retailers are having to adapt their physical environments to meet social distancing guidelines and ensure stock and merchandising is equipped to deal with unpredictable demand. Armed with the data insights gleaned from online sales and marketing, in-store staff can maximise the reduced capacity of their shops by giving customers the products and offers that they’re truly looking for.

Some experts, such as KPMG in their ‘realities of retailing in a Covid-19 world’ report, foresee a long-term aftershock of supply chain disruption, with various countries and regions being impacted by second wave outbreaks and local lockdowns. With this in mind, it is crucial that you have access to real-time insights into your operations and logistics.

Weekly or monthly inventory counts are no longer fit for purpose, and forward-thinking retailers are looking towards minute-by-minute inventory tracking and responsive supply chain management to cushion this uncertainty. Warehouse staff and in-store managers should have access to this real-time data, which can also be enabled by a product QR code or NFC tag linked to a custom data dashboard on their phone or laptop, allowing them to make decisions on the fly according to demand and customer footfall.

Opportunity in the midst of crisis

Many of today’s biggest retail trends are driven by data, whether it’s hyper-personalisation, smart merchandising – anticipating what customers will buy, as well as when and where – or real-time inventory and supply chain management. For example, clothing brands use data insights to determine which lines or ranges are selling well with specific demographics, sometimes leading to some surprising discoveries that may not be obvious at surface level. These insights can then be used to take the guesswork out of business planning and scale for seasonal peaks in demand.

In order to navigate these uncharted waters, it is crucial that “clicks” meet “bricks” to give retailers a converged view of their business across online and in-store channels. Any marginal gain in this difficult time gives retailers the best possible chance of success, and insight from data is key to adapting quickly to a challenging new reality.

Kabalan Gaspard is retail customer engineer at Looker

Author: Kabalan Gaspard is Retail Customer Engineer at Looker

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