Surviving deep waters requires learning how to swim first.
We expect tech companies to continually bring us innovative ways to reach our business goals through digitalization. While innovations drive our global economy and are well worth the attention they get, I fear that too often the sizzle and “wow!” factors of purpose-built innovations get too much attention at the expense of the foundational digital capabilities retailers desperately need to stay competitive amidst the disruptions of the 21st century.
That was my takeaway from the 2017 NRF Conference in New York City, where hundreds of vendors vied for attention from an international audience of more than 35,000 attendees a few weeks ago. I found aisle after aisle of fancy displays reminiscent more of a Circus than a Retail industry conference. There were booth staffers dressed as cartoon characters, virtual reality displays the size of welding masks, and even a 10-foot-tall robot/man with a metallic voice working the crowd at one oversized booth.
There were robotic solutions for inventory checking by scanning RFID tags, self-scanning cash registers, Virtual Reality devices to explore retail displays without setting foot in a store and even digital dressing rooms where you can see from your computer what cloths will look like on your body type without leaving home.
Granted, it was a fun show, and clearly some of these new and exciting innovations will greatly improve our digital retail future. But I fear what was often overlooked were practical solutions to the most vexing challenges retailers face in the real world. Problems, for example, like integrated software systems that will provide executives down to store managers planning solutions for inventory and staffing combined with BI reporting and financial consolidation.
This is particularly true today when retailers are spending inordinate amounts of time and capital on trying to get 10 to 15-year old enterprise retail systems to talk to one another, despite their being on separate architectures and outdated hardware. Many NRF attendees I spoke with are still handicapped by planning systems based entirely on Excel, which give them little to no workflow capabilities. And many of them, particularly from very large and well-known retailers, are gun-shy after having tried to implement huge planning projects that were delivered way too late and over-budget, but failed to return the value promised by vendors. And where they had successfully deployed a planning solution, another major challenge presented itself in how to find a suitable and “compatible” BI reporting solution.
From those discussions at our NRF booth, I learned that many large retailers’ number one concern is how to avoid the difficulties they have encountered in searching for new candidates to fill their planning & BI solution needs, which they can take into the future on their own without having to pay exorbitant fees for “building sites” of new software releases. Simply put, retailers want planning and Business Intelligence to be easy to use by their own business managers.
While purpose-built innovations can enable retailers to accomplish many amazing new things, in the final analysis, it’s the fundamentals that need to be addressed first and foremost. One fundamental retailers around the world have discovered is a unique platform that blends both Business Intelligence reporting and retail planning on a single architecture, thereby freeing up their personnel hours and budget for the exciting world of future innovations that, I’m certain, will invade the NRF show floor again next year.