Digital transformation

A unified shopping experience

September 22, 2021 - 4 minutes reading time
Article by Willem Bekkers

It’s never been more important to know exactly what role your stores play in your customer journey. And do you know what trends and technologies are helping to create a better customer experience?

Centric likes to make this process simple by offering software to support a complete omnichannel customer journey, whatever it looks like. “We help retailers to successfully connect with consumers,” explains Willem Bekkers, Strategic Product Manager for Retail.

Many people browse the shops in town looking for something to entertain them and surprise them. They casually stroll past the shelves, seeking inspiration. Retailers are responding to this by enticing consumers with a unique experience – a cooking workshop or running clinic, for example. Bekkers refers to this phenomenon as ‘attraction’. But there is another factor to bear in mind: time starvation. People are cramming more and more into their day, and that leaves little time for shopping, which consumers expect to be fast and efficient. Many prefer to check whether an item is in stock in advance and then pick it up quickly or have it delivered to their home. These two contradictory needs mean retailers are at a strategic crossroads: will they opt for experience and temptation...or for speed and efficiency? Bekkers says, “Sometimes the best solution is a combination of both. Whatever the goal is, the choices retailers make determine precisely how they need to be using technology and structuring their logistics.”

The choices retailers make determine precisely how they need to be using technology and structuring their logistics

‐ Willem Bekkers, Strategic Product Manager Retail at Centric

Personalised promotions

Centric is noticing more and more trends. Some have been established for quite some time and are being embraced by more and more retailers, such as providing convenience to consumers or influencing consumer behaviour. “Take personalised promotions, for example. The majority of retailers will be using these within the next five years to lure consumers into the store. Another development is social distancing, which is boosting certain trends such as self-scanning, self-checkouts and contactless payments.”

With some trends, it isn’t entirely clear yet how they will fit in with the day-to-day strategy for retailers. Bekkers mentions new technologies such as artificial intelligence and augmented & virtual reality. “Together with retailers, we are developing proof-of-concepts to explore how these technologies work and how we can create the most value.”

A number of trends stem from the rise of ‘unified commerce’ and new sales channels. Some purchases are shifting from in-store to the webshop and toward social media. At the same time, the importance of fulfilment is growing; consumers expect their wishes to be fulfilled at all times, regardless of the channel they use. The eco-system that retailers need for this is becoming increasingly complex. An order can be delivered from the store or warehouse, or passed straight on to a supplier.

Multiple streams

Like the store, the warehouse is becoming more of a hub where the different sales channels converge. Virtually every warehouse today is an omnichannel one, with a single set of stock for all channels. And these channels consist not only of the retailer’s own stores and webshops, but also the marketplaces and stores of other retailers. “We are seeing more and more flows being generated from the same stock source,” notes Scott Domhof, Supply Chain Business Consultant at Centric. In an omnichannel warehouse, the order structure is rather different, with up to 60 to 70% of online orders being for just one product. “Those orders can be processed in the warehouse in a different way from the rest, using automatic packaging machines, for example. And when it comes to fast-moving products, you might be able to skip the picking process by placing a pallet loaded with them right next to the packing table.”

Domhof also sees that the warehouse is being used to expand the range. Retailers can stock many more items in their webshop than in-store. And if an item is out of stock in-store, the customer can simply order it there and pick it up later or have it delivered to their home. “And all these items don’t necessarily have to be stored at an order picking location. Less popular items can be kept higher up in the warehouse at a bulk location and be made available for picking when they are needed using smart algorithms.”

Smart picking

The coronavirus pandemic has driven these retail trends even further. Online orders have exploded, and retailers now know just how important it is to scale up quickly. “This depends heavily on the speed and efficiency of handling orders,” explains Domhof. “The trick is to combine orders intelligently into tasks for order pickers. If there are already five order pickers in an aisle, the WMS will hold the next order from that area to prevent congestion. This is where intelligent algorithms come in. It’s not about being quick when it comes to picking, but smart.”

A partner that thinks critically helps retailers get the most out of their solutions

‐ Scott Domhof, Supply Chain Business Consultant at Centric

Something that shops and warehouses have in common is a shortage of staff. The rise of e-commerce has shifted the workload in warehouses well into the evening and night, but it’s a real struggle finding employees to work those hours, so more and more retailers are looking into the options provided by mechanisation and robotisation.

Technology can also help to keep shops profitable. Bekkers says, “Shops that were only just scraping by before the pandemic are now at risk of going under. Retailers need to rethink how important those stores are to their model, while investigating whether manual work can be automated.”

Getting the most out of solutions

One thing is certain for both shops and warehouses: there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach for all retailers. Retailers will need to find a model that works best for their customers and themselves. The software they use to manage their operations must support that approach. To ensure that goods arrive in-store or with the consumer on time, Centric has developed the Locus Warehouse Management System (WMS). For stores, there is also the Omnichannel Retail Suite (ORS). Bekkers continues, “ORS is a solution for all channels, and it can feed all the physical and digital touchpoints. Just think of the complex eco-system needed to fulfil consumer needs. We make sure that all the solutions from that eco-system work together to provide a single, unified shopping experience – regardless of the channel or touchpoint. This makes the interaction between retailers and consumers smoother, faster and, in turn, more valuable.”

Retailers expect a partner like Centric to think about this with them. Domhof concludes, “Retailers don’t want a supplier that does exactly what they tell them and nothing more; they want a partner that thinks critically. How can we best control our operations with our software? That’s why we follow retail developments very closely, so retailers can get the most out of their solutions.”

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