Retail, Analytics, and the Economic Crisis: Three Lessons Learned

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Click to learn more about author Julien Gautier.

Over the last month, the business world has come to a standstill with organizations across the business landscape scrambling to make sense of how to preserve revenue as the world grapples with the economic downturn associated with COVID-19. This is particularly true in one industry: retail.

The struggles retailers are facing have been reported far and wide. Retailers have been embracing several steps — such as enacting in-store social distancing measures and fortifying online shopping — in an effort to adapt as best as possible to this crisis. Nonetheless, several key questions have been raised in the retail industry. How could the response have been better? What can be done to prevent such damage to the business from happening in the future? And where does technology fit into all of this? As retailers are parsing through the fallout of this ongoing crisis, many are also examining how their technology strategies and processes could be improved.

With that in mind, here are some of the key early lessons I believe retailers and their tech teams can take away from the current economic crisis.

Enabling Real-Time Transparency and Oversight

Today’s technology solutions are incredibly intertwined. However, although they are so interwoven, in many cases, they are managed by software environments and human processes that are not made to communicate easily with each other. This inhibits real-time oversight and coordination and can have far-reaching consequences as a result. For example, in retail, this miscommunication can result in everything from product shortages in key areas to unforeseen price hikes on priority items — both of which have occurred during the COVID-19 outbreak. This has resulted in long-term customer dissatisfaction throughout the retail industry. 

Retailers and their tech teams have since become attuned to this communication problem and are quickly setting out to make their technology more “friendly.” In addition, real-time transparency has become a huge focal point for retailers as well, so that if an anomaly occurs, it can be detected right away and addressed accordingly.

Making Foresight a Priority

Given how rapidly things change in the retail business today, retailers are accustomed to having to deal with disruptions. However, since the COVID-19 crisis in many regions ramped up in a relatively short period of time, many were ill-prepared for such a sudden, widespread business disruption. 

As a result, retailers should take the time to examine how strong their foresight capabilities actually are and take steps to strengthen themselves when it comes to anticipating future scenarios. This means not only running more simulations with more diverse scenarios but also how far into the future these simulations can run. This will help retailers be better prepared to act under a much greater range of circumstances. 

Embracing the Human Element

Technology has fundamentally transformed the way retailers do business. But one of the key takeaways this crisis has provided retailers with is that they should not relinquish full control to autonomous technologies. 

The current pandemic has illuminated two key shortcomings of autonomous technology: It is prone to errors when there is a rapid fluctuation in data, and it is not always as good at coping with rapid changes as humans. Therefore, many retailers are considering a more hybrid approach to their technology as a result of COVID-19, whereby their advanced Data Science tools aim to empower human operators, not replace them. 

Retailers are still working hard to continue providing goods and services during this crisis, but now is the time when the industry and its tech teams should start thinking about how to transform the way they conduct business, to be more resilient and better prepared to adapt their operations when the next crisis comes — whatever shape it may take.

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