Interview: Thoughts on The Future of Retail

Jochen Wiechen, Intershop CTO
Jochen Wiechen, Intershop CTO

A very select group of companies lead the way when it comes to omnichannel retail solutions. Intershop is one of these companies. Having unveiled its first online shop in 1994, it’s also one of the most experienced and innovative. Now more than 500 mid-sized and large companies benefit from its solutions. Among these you can find Hewlett-Packard, BMW, Bosch, Otto, Deutsche Telekom, and Mexx.

We’ve reached out to mr. Jochen Wiechen, Intershop’s CTO, for a few thoughts on the future of retail. Previously a VP of ERP powerhouse SAP, mr. Wiechen holds a PhD in Physics and has a very interesting view on the future of retail.

 

Netonomy.NET: What are the biggest changes in retail you have noticed in the past 5 years?

Jochen Wiechen: Clearly online is the main disruptive technology that has fundamentally reshaped the entire industry, not only retail by the way. Ubiquitous bandwidth availability, multi-media developments and mobile technologies allow for completely new business models and customer experiences.

The customer journey nowadays starts in the Internet, around the clock and everywhere. Sophisticated online marketing activities trigger more and more personalized buying processes that start with extensive research and lead to process innovations such as click and reserve or collect.

Rising online stars such as Amazon, Zalando and Alibaba grow extremely fast and challenge classical retailers who simply cannot ignore these developments and start embracing those concepts by embodying online into their cross-channel concepts. The winners in this game will be the ones who understand the changing customer profiles and associated behaviors as well as the potential of integrating online into an optimized omni-channel system instead of shying away and sticking to the old offline world.

 

N.: Which retailers do you believe are leading the change in global retail?

J.W.: Out of the blue Amazon has developed to the leading global online pure play as well as a relevant player in the retail industry. By consequently embracing the online concept into their channel strategy Walmart is currently showing an even faster growth rate of their online channel than Amazon and is a perfect example of a winner in the overall online transformation. Other relevant players in this game are Nordstrom, John Lewis or House of Fraser, for example.

 

N.:Do you expect Chinese retailers to increase their market share globally? Do you believe Alibaba Group’s expected IPO in the US is a step in that direction?

J.W.: Alibaba is projected to pass by Walmart in overall sales this year, the latter being the largest retailer worldwide. In the US alone, Alibaba is expected to grow 30% this year and although its development in Europe is still in its infancy, also here surprises will have to be expected.

 

N.:How important is technology in addressing the consumer needs now and in the future?

J.W.:As stated above, nowadays most customers start their journeys in the Internet which is a profound change compared to classical retail. Already at this stage they are able to browse for any categories and products from anywhere at any time with any device, to compare prices, select within huge collections, take advantage of intelligent recommendations and potentially use fitting engines before they buy either online or in the store where they might collect the selected product.

In order to provide large target groups with these services a highly complex, highly scalable, and highly available IT-infrastructure is a prerequisite. Viewed from the other way around, technology is simply key in the paradigm shift that is currently taking place in the retail industry.

“[…]technology is simply key in the paradigm shift that is currently taking place in the retail industry.”

 

N.:Which technologies do you believe are shaping the future of retail?

J.W.:Based on the speed of the disruptiveness that the combination of high Internet bandwidth availability and the development of multi-media capabilities on a plethora of end-user devices has caused in the retail industry it is expected that the evolution of further technologies will continue to reshape the industry.

While Big Data has already gained substantial market share in order to analyze and predict consumer behavior we also see a rapidly growing demand for indoor proximity systems in order to support omni-channel transformations. In general, we agree with analysts that the Internet of Things is the next big thing in not only this industry. Devices, gadgets and sensors of all sorts interact amongst each other as well as with human beings in order to reach a new level of communications and interactions. The winners in the upcoming retail industry battle will be the ones who take advantage of this technology development that will lead to today possibly unimaginable customer journey innovations.

 

N.:How will mobile devices impact retailers and shape consumer behavior?

J.W.:On the one hand, mobile devices allow for ubiquitous browsing and shopping which removes any local stickiness of the consumer, who can even choose the best offer while walking through a mall. Recent search engine analytics reveal astonishing portions of regional references in search requests.

On the other hand, this is an opportunity for retailers thereby taking advantage of location-based services by sending ads or promotions to consumers walking by a store, in which a sales person might then use a mobile shop assistant app in order to lure the customer into a well-educated sales pitch that is not only consisting of more or less good guesses based on gut feelings or superficial conversations that help shying away the customer.

N.:Will 3D printing technologies be used in improving tomorrow’s supply chain?

Amazon's 3D Printing Store points to new developments in retailing.
Amazon’s 3D Printing Store points to new developments in retailing.

J.W.:While the usage of the technology on the consumer side is still in its infancy, Amazon just recently already opened a shop for products coming out of 3D printers and has again proven its leading role in the industry. It is hard to say how far the technology will be able to be pushed in terms of product complexity which then will determine the extent to which it will be used in supply chains.

N.:What are the next steps in Intershop’s evolution, in terms of innovation?

J.W.:Based on a research project we have been carrying out together with local Universities we are currently rolling out a commerce simulation engine (SIMCOMMERCE) that falls into the category Predictive Analytics and that allows for outstanding optimization capabilities for commerce operators.

Apart from that, we are closely working together with our customers and partners to explore various process innovations by integrating new technologies, devices and gadgets with our platform. With our SEED initiative, with which we scan the market for commerce-relevant leading edge technologies that we can incorporate into our offering we are looking for ways to help our customers to substantially improve their traffic, conversion rates as well as sales and delivery processes. We agree with leading analysts that the Internet of Things will play a dominant role in those developments.

Beyond the Store: Drop-shops and Pop-up Stores

There is ongoing change in the retail landscape. Both offline and online retailers now migrate towards hybrid solutions. Just as brick and mortar retailers have shifted towards online retailing, so did online pure-plays started engaging customers offline.

Retailers now need to combine the in-store pick-up options (which most online pure plays don’t have), an offline presence for information and branding purposes, as well as a way of pushing best-sellers into the market. At the lowest cost possible.

Bellow you’ll find two of the most promising directions, especially for online-first retailers:

The Drop-Shop

Not to be confused with the term “drop shipping”, the drop shop is an offline facility that handles first and foremost package pick-up from customers. Such a need arises when customers do not want to subjected to shipping schedule but rather decide when and where to pick up ordered products. When dealing with such customer requests, offline-first retailers have the upper hand, as the existing store network provides support for customer pick-up options.

Slowly moving into the brick and mortar territory, online retailers discover innovative ways to handle customer offline interaction. One such example is the Amazon Locker. Its function is to allow customers to order  products online and then pick-up the package from a near-by Locker.

Amazon Locker
Amazon Locker

As seen above, most Amazon Lockers are not exactly located in the most glamorous locations (here pictured near the lady’s room) but it does the job.

Customers could select the closest Amazon Locker, had their orders delivered there and then receive an email announcing the order is now available. To pick up orders, clients can either enter the pickup code in the central-unit computer or scan the mailed barcode.

So far Amazon tried its luck with the likes of Staples (second largest online retailer in the US),  Radioshack and 7-Eleven. The promise to these companies was that Amazon has many customers and those that will want to pick up their packages from the Amazon Locker will probably buy something else from the store. The practice was not exactly successful as both Staples and Radioshack eventually dropped the project.

However, Amazon and the likes will probably not stop here, to increase sales they need to provide the customer with an way to experience product, as well as return and buy other products from their B&M operations. So far they didn’t need to, as others catered to the showrooming need. Soon enough, however, retailers able to price match will either become serious competitors and improve their online operations and then online retailers will have to battle on unknown land.

The drop shop will be a type of small to medium shop, probably affiliated with larger retail operations, providing customers for:

  • package pick-up
  • merchandise experience and testing
  • returns and customer service

The pop-up store

The concept behind the pop-up store is a temporary location that exists for a short term, to provide marketing exposure or sell limited inventory items. It is not something that online retailers brought to the market but there are a lot using it right now.

Fleur de Mal online retailer uses Pop-Up Shops to engage customers in real life.
Fleur de Mal online retailer uses Pop-Up Shops to engage customers in real life.

Online stores that don’t operate B&M operations found the pop-up store an useful way to attract attention. It’s also a great way to provide sales outlets to customers during high sales periods, such as the holidays.

New brands, focused on retail online increasingly find that using pop-up stores is a great way to attract new customers. These customer acquisition tactic allows potential buyers to experience the brand, as well as its products.

For online retailer Fleur de Mal, setting up pop-up shops has been a great way to appeal to their fashion savvy target customers. Company representatives use pop-up shops to showcase their organic fiber fashion items to potential consumers throughout the US.

BAUBLEBAR, a fresh and innovative ecommerce startup focused on jewelry has seen brand recognition increase as soon as they started opening pop-up shops. Katherin Hill, director of offline at BAUBLEBAR outlined the main incentive to open a pop-up shop: We see about half of the people who walk in to our pop-up shops have never heard of our brand before” [Source].

There are, however, several obstacles that need to be overcome, such as offline channel connectivity to the central server, as well as store design. The biggest challenge is to find the right spot to place the pop-up shops. As most online pure plays have a hard time navigating and understanding the complex offline retail rent environment, a new startup decided to step in and help small and medium retailers find the right store spot.

Storefront is a company connecting landlords to retailers. It works as a marketplace between the two types of users. As pop-up shop demand has been on the rise, the company launched a Pop-Up Shop blog and an eBook detailing the inner workings of setting up a pop-up shop.

Both the drop shop and the pop-up shop are hybrid solutions that point to the fact that online retailers feel the need to set foot in offline retail. The pressure to reach omnichannel retailing efficiency is, thus, equally felt by offline, as well as online pure plays.

This post is an excerpt from “Understanding Omnichannel Retail – A Detailed Report”.

 

 

 

Showrooming Markets

Showrooming is a trend more and more retailers recognize. Most online retailers piggyback on consumers trying on merchandise in physical stores, only to search for the best price and then purchase the product online.

Although hard to fight, the trend might be actually beneficial for larger retailers that need to attract customers to their online stores and can afford price matching.

On one hand we have large retailers fighting to keep customers purchasing. Walmart for example, rolled out Savings Catcher in 2014 and now its pushing it across US. The tool allows users to compare prices on Walmart.com to those of its comepetitors. Any difference found is stored as store credit for the customer.

The likes of Amazon are trying to allow showroomers even more space to find the best prices online. Its recently launched Fire Phone has a built in mechanism that allows users to scan products (not just barcodes) and find the best deals online.

Showrooming around the world
Showrooming around the world

In this battle the ones that suffer most are the small retailers or retailers unadapted to omnichannel operations. This companies cannot afford customers trying on merchandise only to buy it some place else, while still keeping the shop open. It’s not just a passing thing either. 33% of customers worldwide report being showroomers, with 21% using their mobile phones to do it ( Source ).

Even more, markets that are earlier adopters of this trend seem to be even more into it. 71% of shoppers in developed Asia, 60% in North America and 54% of European consumers report showrooming practices.

As probably small to medium retailers won’t just roll over and disappear a new type of partner will probably appear in the near future

Showrooming markets as outsourced product display

Traditionally, retailers evolved to outsource everything that didn’t make sense handling within the company. Things as manufacturing or logistics are now commonly outsourced to reliable partners, companies that handle more than one retailers.

It’s not just manufacturing or logistics. If you think about it, most retailers outsource vital areas of their operations. Financial reporting, IT services and sometimes even human resources are outsourced to partners providing reliable service and economies of scale. Globalization has helped push this trend as companies can find cheaper, reliable work offshore.

But so far stores were pretty much left untouched. Retailers still feel the need to control and manage stores as they see fit, even if sometimes it is not the most economically reliable thing to do. As showrooming decreases the need and efficiency for the self-managed store, as online retail becomes increasingly popular and outsourcing gains traction in the future product display in store will also be outsourced.

[Article extracted from “Understanding Omnichannel Retail”. Download the report here.]

Millennials as well as older demographics still favor B&M stores. They also like to see and touch the products they are buying. But they don’t always buy from the shop displaying the product. There is a solution that will probably become commonplace in the future, especially for small and medium retailers.

As retailers need to optimize their pricing in order to compete to only pure plays and online retailers need to establish a physical presence, a new type of company will emerge. The showrooming market.

The showrooming market is a place that aims to provide customers with extended information on the product, as well as the full product experience. The concept is already available online, with markets such as Ebay providing product display space for smaller retailers, as well as online pure plays willing to try an additional sales channel.

The primary function for the showrooming market is product display, rather than sale. Its revenue sources would be retailers paying and competing for shelf space, but generally paying less than they would displaying the products  on their on. Retailers, on the other hand, would benefit from an affordable B&M space, as well as a logistic point in product delivery, outsourced to companies that can do it better, due to economies of scale and process optimization.