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Phygital, Automation, And AI: Unlocking Facets Of Retail With Bala Vennelaganti
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Phygital, Automation, And AI: Unlocking Facets Of Retail With Bala Vennelaganti

Retail is experiencing a major upheaval driven by the digital revolution and the rise of new technologies. With e-stores and virtual shopping becoming the norm, traditional retailers are facing the challenge of integrating their online and offline channels to provide a seamless experience to their customers. Moreover, with AR, VR, and AI becoming more and more mainstream, keeping up with the pace of change has emerged as another challenge. Yet, there are some best practices and strategies that can help retailers stay relevant and competitive. In this interview to the author, Mr Bala Vennelaganti, Vice President of Delivery at Qentelli, got candid about everything that is retail (and not retail). Excerpts:

If their shopping experience isn’t memorable, customers are less likely to return. How do Digital Transformation and Artificial Intelligence play a role in making the customer experience more seamless, personalized, and memorable?

Customer needs are rapidly evolving, especially in terms of their digital behaviors and expectations. For retail brands to stay relevant, they need to deliver an experience that is unique, impactful, and personal to their customers. Moreover, with the lines between physical and digital getting increasingly blurred, Digital Transformation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are becoming the forefront of any retail business strategy.

Here are some tips and tricks on creating an omnichannel experience for your customers:

"Shopping experience begins the moment a customer walks into a store".

A customer walks into a store, with a desire, expectation, and intent. This moment marks the first point of contact between a customer and a retailer. It's the first opportunity for a retailer to make a lasting impression and form a perception of the brand, the products, and the overall shopping experience – As they say, the first impression is often the last impression. Assigning a Customer Support Associate to the customer at the point of entry and navigating them to the right product, allows customers to be seen and heard.

"Say no to the clunky or confusing payment process"

In today's hyper-connected world, seamlessness has become a basic expectation of every customer and the ease at the payment checkout is one of the main components that make a difference. Gone are the days when customers would be willing to queue up to purchase their desired products or would stand a complex digital payment process. Today, they have an ample number of alternatives to choose from and a clunky payment process would be the last thing they would want to deal with. Deploying the right set of retail payment systems is crucial in enhancing customer satisfaction and retention. While online payment systems have been in place for a long time, the payment industry is changing rapidly. Underneath the shift to a cashless global society lies the rise of mobile payments and the emergence of new payment methods that are more secure, faster, and easier to use. It's crucial for retailers to keep up with the latest trends and deploy a technology that's aligned with their business and consumer goals.

"Consumers love self-checkout service for the speed and convenience it brings"

Self-checkout, which saw a sudden surge in popularity during the pandemic, has been a rage ever since. While self-checkout and touchless terminals were a thing even before the coronavirus pandemic hit us, they got a big push during the lockdowns. Now, retailers are riding on the wave of self-checkout and touchless technologies to increase sales and customer satisfaction. Through self-checkout, consumers get to save time, have more control over their shopping experience, and enjoy personalized service.

"Automate. It boosts sales, optimizes operations, and improves retail customer experience."

Self-check brings me to a broader conclusion: automation is a necessity in today's business environment.

Digital automation in the retail industry enables retailers to adjust their offerings to suit their customers’ needs. It frees up their employees from mundane tasks and lets them focus on strategic activities and customer engagement. Personalization, attention from the brand, and seamlessness are appreciated by the customers. The customer is willing to pay more for these benefits and automation is enabling retailers to provide them. From speed and efficiency to convenience and safety, automation brings several benefits to retailers. Having said that, a fine balance between automation and the human touch should be maintained to ensure a good retail customer experience.

"AR and VR are changing the way we shop, interact with the product, and make purchases."

A memorable shopping experience is one that stays in the mind of the customer for a long time and brings them back to the brand. It's an experience that captivates the customer and strongly persuades them to make a purchase decision. AR and VR have been a great success in the arena and have been used to deliver a memorable and meaningful shopping experience. AR and VR help customers interact and engage with the product in a more realistic manner in the comfort of their homes. From virtual try-ons to product demonstrations, AR and VR are allowing customers to visualize the products before making a purchase. The technologies have been a boon to buyers and sellers, and they have improved customer confidence, reduced returns, and enhanced the overall shopping experience.

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What are the things that a retail organization should keep in mind while prioritizing areas that require a digital facelift and making technology investment decisions?

Prioritizing the 'look and feel' of the physical and digital experience is key in making technology decisions or prioritizing areas that require a digital facelift. Retailers today need to focus on omnichannel strategies to call customers to action and drive them into the stores. From well-designed stores to immersive mobile apps, retailers shouldn't leave any stone unturned in providing a seamless customer experience. One of the most successful approaches, that has helped businesses go from mediocre to extraordinary, is moving away from traditional desktop point-of-sale (POS) systems and adopting mobile POS.

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The transition has helped them provide a more personalized shopping experience and improved the efficiency of business operations.

These retail POS gets easily integrated with CRM software and other backend systems and helps retailers take their sales, marketing, and customer experience efforts to the next level. CRM-integrated POS systems automate back-end and at-the-point-of-sale tasks, allowing retail staff to spend more time knowing the customer than ringing the sale.

How do you stay up to date with the latest technology trends to ensure you leverage the right technologies at the right time for businesses?

For me, the best way to stay up to date with the latest technology trends is to participate in retail seminars and conferences. They have helped me stay ahead of the curve and brainstorm the latest and greatest. Apart from these, I never miss picking the brains of my peers and colleagues and also read articles and journals on a regular basis.

What are the next big trends in the retail industry that are going to change the way customers shop and make purchase decisions?

AR and VR, and AI-enabled applications are shaping the future of retail and will continue to be a major trend in the industry. AR and VR are empowering customers to experience the products before they buy them, and AI is enabling retailers to provide a customized shopping experience. With the help of AR and VR, customers get a 360-degree view of the products, engage and interact with them, and take informed purchase-related decisions.

The luxury retail sector is also diverting from traditional brick-and-mortar stores and moving towards online shopping. They are providing their customers with virtual try-on options, expert assistance, and planning services, to help them make an informed and satisfactory purchase.

These emerging technologies have significantly changed various aspects of operations and customer experiences. AI-powered algorithms are being used to analyze historical sales data, market trends, demand and supply patterns, inventory and pricing optimization, and fraud detection.

Overall, the integration of AI, AR, and VR, has allowed brands to bridge the gap between online and offline shopping experiences, improve customer satisfaction, and drive sales.

How do you approach cybersecurity and data privacy concerns in the retail industry? What steps an organization should take to ensure that sensitive customer and business data is protected?

Every business is at risk of a data breach, but the retail industry is one of the most vulnerable. The retail industry is lucrative to attackers for its vast amount of consumer and business data. There is a high demand for sensitive customer information, like credit card details, data on purchasing habits, and personal information such as phone numbers, and addresses, among the criminals. Given the sensitivity of the data, it's crucial for retailers to seal all the entry points into their network.

Even a single compromised point can be used to access PII (Personal Identifying Information) and PCI (Payment Card Industry) information - which result in huge reputational damage and financial penalties.

Data encryption at all stages of the data lifecycle should be the primary requirement for the retail industry. From employee training, SSL certificates, and end-to-end data encryption from order capture systems till Bank settlement applications, all intermediate systems and integrations, data must be encrypted to avert cyber threats. While an SSL certificate, which verifies a website's identity and enables an encrypted connection, is necessary to secure online transactions and keep customer data private, training employees on how to identify phishing and handle sensitive data is equally important. Employees should be apprised of the consequences of a data breach and how it can affect the organization's bottom line. Recent incidents show insiders can do much more serious harm than external hackers.

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What are the biggest challenges retail companies are facing while implementing new technology solutions?

Cybersecurity and data privacy and transforming legacy systems are the biggest challenges for retail companies.

Cyberattacks, such as DDoS assaults, malware infections, and data breaches are becoming increasingly common. With the rise in the use of sophisticated tools and techniques, cybercriminals are systematically robbing retailers of their data and assets, customer information, and business identity. Protecting customer information and meeting data privacy regulations have become a priority for retailers.

Another challenge is adapting to market changes, it is difficult to quickly rewrite monolithic legacy applications and adapt to changing business needs. It helps to design applications to use headless architecture and integrate with specialized third-party products via API-based integrations and engage in pay-per-use models.

How do you approach data management and analytics in the retail industry? How do you ensure data is being used effectively to drive business decisions?

Data is the new gold. Data collection and analysis are becoming the basis of all future service offerings and business decisions. In the retail industry, the significance of historical data is enormous. It's used to predict and analyze various business functions, such as material planning, inventory management, customer behavior, and product performance.

They help retailers plan the logistics and distribution of products to optimize the supply chain and stay on top of profit margins.

How do you balance the need for innovation and technology advancement with the need to maintain operational stability and reliability in a retail organization?

Operational stability and reliability are paramount and can't be compromised. While innovation and technological advancement are survival requirements, they should be carefully integrated to avoid much turbulence in the organization's operations. An unstable and unreliable system is looked upon as a naive and ill-prepared organization. It's crucial for retailers to introduce new technologies, and innovative systems incrementally and strategically, to avoid a breakdown in customer service. It must be done in a phased manner so that customers don't face any disruption in their shopping experience. The customers should be able to walk in and walk out of the store without any technical glitches or hiccups. For a seamless experience, retailers must ensure that all store-facing and customer-facing applications should have close to 100% uptime and that all integrations to backend systems -- order management systems, inventory check, and warehouse management systems are working all the time.

When it comes to innovation and technological advancement, it depends a lot on the budget and the areas of upliftment set by the organization. It's highly recommended to keep AR, VR, and AI in the focus areas of innovation and technological advancement. Continuous research and development in these will have a winning impact on the organizations. To assist your transformational journey, companies can also decide to procure third-party products such as content management systems, image repositories, search, assortment, forecasting, and WMS products.

How do we ensure that technology solutions are aligned with the overall business strategy of a retail organization?

The key is to understand the organization's goals and objectives. A clearly stated business strategy provides direction to technology initiatives. It helps in understanding the areas that require a digital facelift and the ones that need to be preserved. A thorough analysis of the organization's operations and the expectations of different departments and stakeholders helps in aligning technology solutions with the overall business strategy.

How do you foster innovation and creativity within your team to help businesses stay ahead of the competition in the retail industry?

At Qentelli, we have a culture of innovation and transparency - where open communication, collaboration, and the sharing of ideas are highly valued no matter how trivial they may seem. Through our Center of Enablement groups, intrapreneurial initiatives, and regular brainstorming sessions, we have been able to create an environment that encourages innovative thinking. We entrust our employees with the freedom to experiment, learn from failures, and iterate on their ideas.

What are the most important skills and qualities you look for in your team (that are not related to technology)?

I admire people who are excellent team players. I find the ability to collaborate with others and bring out the best in others to be an incredible quality. Second, I look for their curiosity and willingness to think outside the box. In the world of prompts and templates, what distinguishes our work is our ability to deliver something that is unique and innovative. Creative thinking is highly valuable. And last but foremost, I look for a customer-first mindset in my team members. If our team members are not driven by our customer’s needs, then we can’t create something extraordinary.

How do you prepare your team to adapt to the changes and future challenges that the retail industry will face in the next 3-5 years?

We have a culture of continuous learning and innovation at all levels of the organization. Through various L&D programs and peer learning and mentoring, we ensure that our people are aware of the trends, best practices, and latest developments in our industry. Their knowledge and skill set have helped us build, buy, and enhance products and services that meet the evolving needs of our customers.

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