The past two decades have seen an ongoing revolution in the relationship between retailers and their customers. This radical change has advanced through three increasingly profound phases, all caused by rising usage of digital technology, and all creating new opportunities and challenges in the retail sector.
In the early days of the World Wide Web and digitization, the Internet offered customers a much bigger catalog than was ever before possible. There was more choice, more research, more comparison shopping. Retailers, for their part, could expose more of their goods at low cost, track shopping habits and inventory more efficiently, and keep a closer eye on the competition.
With the advent of smartphones and social media, customers entered a much more dynamic phase. They became on-demand advocates, active in praise and criticism, and insisting on a direct relationship with products and brands. Retailers were compelled to respond, and those who did so effectively enlisted grassroots advocates and opened up new avenues for commerce.
We are now entering a third stage, marked by the advent of Artificial Intelligence in our personal and business lives. It promises to be an even more profound shift in the relationship between retailers and customers than ever before. Techniques like Machine Learning enable customers to demand not simply that, as in the social media age, they be seen; customers now also demand to be understood. Intelligent Enterprises, for their part, can enact customer personalization at unprecedented scale, with greater efficiencies serving to increase margins.
The Accenture Google Cloud Business Group (AGBG) is helping retailers across the world realize these opportunities. AGBG was created for the AI era, achieving real results for our clients by combining Google Cloud’s best-in-class Machine Learning tools with Accenture’s rich capabilities in industry knowledge. The goal is to design, test, incubate, and scale innovation far faster than was possible using older computing technologies and workflows.
In many cases, the solutions are already at hand; it’s a question of bringing them up to speed correctly. Data from clients, Accenture, and third-party sources can be utilized on Google Cloud Platform for speed and security, then used in Machine Learning tools like Google Cloud ML Engine, BigQueryML, or other AI products to create new customer and back-end experiences.
Take intelligent agents. The ability to understand and meet the individual consumer’s desires in the moment is the new “purpose” of retailing. Drawing on capabilities in areas like Natural Language Processing, shopping histories and larger trends, intelligent agents enable millions of consumers to have natural conversations that answer their specific needs. Deployed to call centers, these agents enable humans to focus on higher-value interactions with customers.
Another dimension of the third stage is the blend of online and physical retail spaces. In the first stage, digital knowledge was largely limited to what came from browsers. With mobile and social, the data of browsers became mobile, and there were larger sets of unstructured data for retailers to analyze. Today, the continued growth of mobility and Internet of Things means retailers are capturing real-time information about their stores that is often richer than the data they can get online.
As these disruptive changes play out, incumbent retailers are facing a defining moment at which they must transform or die. To adapt and survive, they need to dramatically improve their understanding of—and engagement with—customers across all channels and touchpoints. And they must create systems that learn continually to support ever-better decisions, enabling them to have deep real-time insights into their operations and keep pace with changes in human behavior enabled by digital.
There are many real-world examples of these capabilities in action – and already delivering results. It starts with a strategic focus on combining revenue growth and intelligent customer engagement, to create a rising virtuous circle with each helping to drive the other. With intelligent revenue growth, AGBG brings personalization and product recommendation by leveraging Google Insights using advertising technology (AdTech) and marketing technology (MarTech) data. Then we couple this with intelligent customer engagement – bringing Agent Assist, Voice Ordering using Google Cognitive Computing and AI Services.
Empowered by these capabilities, what can retailers achieve? Take shelf stock monitoring and replenishment: using Google Cloud with AI, IP cameras and the IoT, a retailer can ensure products are always available in the optimal location for customers looking to buy them. Or take customer communication in a 10,000-shopper megastore: through automated machine learning and analytics on customer and channel data, the retailer can have 10,000 unique, one-to-one conversations in real time, understanding and meeting every customer’s needs in the moment.
Looking forward, as AI and data-enabled interactions with customers expand and proliferate, and routine transactions migrate away from the bricks-and-mortar retail outlets, the future becomes even more exciting. The main competitive battleground—where most sales are actually made—will be in the home, or wherever else consumers happen to be at the time. And the physical stores will evolve into experience centers: engaging, immersive environments where consumers can interact with products and services they might want to buy, and learn about them in a personalized setting.
The possibilities are almost endless. Imagine a time when retailers can reach their customers in their homes as easily as in stores; through a chatbot, as effectively as a customer service rep; in their cars, as seamlessly as on a website. In many cases, the new customer already expects their needs to be understood and anticipated, in a healthy, non-intrusive way.
Add in Machine Learning, and it becomes possible to solve retail’s classic “stock or shelf” problem at scale for ever (are goods out of stock, or simply misplaced?) Supply chains can be made more aware and efficient thanks to improved telemetry and cloud-based communications, allowing better interactions and feedback loops with partners and suppliers. The result? Customers get the goods they want, where they want them. Every time.
Put all this together, and the opportunity is not just better margins, but a lasting increase in brand loyalty. Now that’s a goal that every retailer should be aiming for. To find out more about the power of intelligent retail, visit Accenture and Google Cloud at NRF January 13-15th, 2019! Booth #4255. RSVP here
This is the second blog in our series on the Intelligent Enterprise. Read the first blog introducing the concept of the Intelligent Enterprise and how the AGBG helps companies harness its power.
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