Archive for the 'Retail technology' Category

Who’s next for cashier-less checkout?

RetailWire panelists speculated recently about how long it will take for the Amazon Go experiment to be adopted by other retailers. Here’s my brief take on the issue:

Some stores will never be suited for a cashier-less system (most obviously, retailers like Nordstrom) but it has application to plenty of other stores. It’s a question of scale and how long it will take for enough early adapters to drive the cost of these systems down for everybody else. Think about the evolution of RFID: It’s been hailed as the next big thing in inventory management but has taken seemingly forever for even big national chains to adopt the technology. I don’t expect this to be any different given the short-term capital expense involved.


Amazon Go…it’s a go!

After a long period of testing, Amazon Go is finally opening its doors to the public. Its first C-store location in Seattle has already received a lot of attention for its technological leap, where the shopper can walk out the door and pay for purchases without stopping at a register. Here’s my comment on RetailWire:

I assume the long gestation period was needed to test not only the technology but also the merchandise content. From the descriptions of Amazon Go, it is more focused on fresh and ready-to-eat food than a typical C-store and devotes less space to categories like candy, chips and so forth. It will be interesting to read some on-the-ground reporting about what the store actually looks and feels like.

I expect Amazon to be patient with the concept, because some customers simply won’t be comfortable right away with a cashier-less environment. At least for now, human interaction in any kind of store (including a C-store) is part of the equation unless you’re an early adapter of the Amazon Go tech experience.

Retailers can and must plan for the weather

An interesting discussion at RetailWire about whether retailers can plan for weather variations from year to year or from region to region. Despite several myths on the topic, there was strong consensus that it can and should be part of the planning process. My take:

You can and should plan for the weather, despite what “myth 1” says. It may not be possible to project exactly where or when above- or below-average temperatures will hit (even using long-range forecasting tools), However, it’s certainly possible to project total seasonal buys of categories like gloves, coats, etc. based on three-year or five-year averages. It’s a common mistake to base this year’s buy only on last year’s sales data — which may overstate or understate demand based on exceptionally strong or poor sales results.

It’s also critical for retailers operating nationally to be as flexible as possible about reordering and/or canceling goods, and using the tools at their disposal to make the smartest possible allocation decisions as close to need as possible.

Online shopping: Mobile or laptop?

Online shopping is migrating rapidly from desktops and laptops to mobile devices. On RetailWire, panelists recently discussed this trend:

The answer to the question depends on which retailer you’re talking about. Amazon (for example) makes the process of buying directly from your smartphone app as simple as possible, so it’s easy to buy without having to reach for your laptop. On the other hand, some transactions are more complex (for example, the dishwasher we bought after Thanksgiving) and really benefit from a bigger keyboard and screen to “close the deal” — even if the initial searches happen on the smartphone screen. (At least that’s true for this troglodyte.)

Lesson learned for all e-commerce and omnichannel retailers: Follow the Amazon model where possible, and make the transaction as easy as you can — from search to selection to checkout. If more retailers follow this example, the smartphone share of wallet will continue to grow at a rapid rate.

No, “Big Data” isn’t dead

A recent RetailWire discussion (with the premise that “Big Data” is dead as a retailing management tool) provoked a lot of response. My point of view is that data science combined with action is alive and well:

If you read the recent WSJ interview with the chairman of Fast Retailing (Uniqlo), you might have seen this perceptive comment: “Data would never substitute the merchant. How do you interpret the data? That’s the merchant’s skill set. You need to uncover the insight that is buried in the data and the merchants need to uncover it. Even if you employ artificial intelligence to help you, the numbers [don’t tell] the future.” His point is well taken: No matter how much importance a retail organization places on its ability to extract data from its transactions, the information means nothing if it can’t be turned into action — and some of that decision-making rests on instinct and experience.

That being said, declaring that “Big Data is dead” is an overreaction. The phrase itself may be overused, but data science is alive and well in the interest of smarter merchandising decisions, loyalty programs and so forth. Would Amazon be where it is today without groundbreaking use of data to develop its predictive technology? I don’t think so.

What’s the biggest obstacle to online grocery delivery?

My short answer (see RetailWire comment below): Execution!

If my experience (recounted on earlier posts) is any guide, too many shoppers have tried online grocery delivery with inconsistent results. It doesn’t inspire confidence when your delivery is two hours late and 33% short — and you’re on hold for 45 minutes trying to resolve the problem or cancel the order. (I’m talking about you, Safeway.)

There is no way for conventional grocers to grow their mature business without figuring out how to execute better. The customer has been trained to expect on-time delivery of complete orders in every other category, and Amazon is going to put pressure on its competitors as it expands the Whole Foods footprint.

About that “whole paycheck” perception…

Some of my earlier comments about the Amazon-Whole Foods deal touch on the expected benefits of better e-commerce execution and predictive data science. But let’s not forget that Whole Foods has a price perception problem that Amazon needs to fix. Here’s a recent comment from RetailWire:

I teach a college-level class in retail management. When I surveyed the class about where they shopped, most answered Aldi, or Trader Joe’s, or Metro Market (the Milwaukee brand of Kroger-owned Mariano’s). None of them shops at Whole Foods even though the store is in the neighborhood where most of them live.

There is no doubt that Whole Foods’ “premium price” reputation has kept many shoppers away, as they face more competition in the “organic” arena. I believe the first round of price cuts is just the start, and it simply moved some overpriced key items to the “market price.” Expect more of this from Amazon in the future, but also expect Amazon to build Whole Foods’ base on its potential e-commerce and home delivery upsides.