Leadership Insights: The Top Retail Minds on the Magic of Technology in Driving Customer Experience

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The Retail Association of India (RAI) recently organized the Retail Leadership Summit 2023, that witnessed the convergence of leaders from diverse areas within the Indian retail industry. Several eminent retail leaders participated in a panel discussion moderated by Harsh Shah, Co-Founder of Fynd, on the topic "Recreating the Magic of Retail: Technology's Role in Enhancing Customer Experience."

Among the panelists were, 

  • Anshu Bhogra, Sr. Vice President, Forever New Clothing
  • Bertram Dsouza, Chief Product & Innovation Officer, Protean eGov Technologies
  • Niraj Jaipuria, Founder & Director, BIRetail 
  • Nirmit Parikh, CEO and Founder, Apna
  • Nissan Joseph, CEO, Metro Brands 
  • Sanjay Vakharia, CEO, Spykar Lifestyles 
  • Sugam Asani, Chief of Brands, Bestseller Retail India 

L-R: Sanjay Vakharia (Spykar), Niraj Jaipuria (BIRetail), Anshu Bhogra (Forever New), Nissan Joseph (Metro), Nirmit Parikh (Apna), Bertram Dsouza (Protean), Sugam Asani (Bestseller), Harsh Shah (Fynd)

Here is a glimpse of the key takeaways from this insightful conversation, along with the opinions and views of these retail stalwarts in their respective domains.

Note: The content has been edited for length and clarity.

On Tech Innovation: Thinking Beyond POS

<span style="color: purple;">Harsh, Fynd (Moderator):</span> We've got a good mix of brands as well as technology companies and companies that use technology to enable businesses out here. The oldest technologies in retail are usually point-of-sale systems (POS) and enterprise resource planning (ERP). But beyond that, we still don't see too much technology going on in the stores.

What is beyond POS that you consider a technology innovation in your store? 

<span style="color: green;">Sugam, Bestseller:</span> Around three-four years back, we experimented with different things like trial mirrors, but they didn't work out. The customers were not able to feel what the garment would actually look like. So, I would not like to revisit it!

What I would like to use technology for is interaction between the fashion consultant and the customer, so that we are able to provide the right and relevant product information to the customer.

I feel the next wave is to give more power and information in the hands of the customers so that they know what they want before they walk into the store. One of the things we are doing on that front is having smart QR codes on products that send data about the product and the brand. It is something related to WhatsApp commerce that we are going deep into.

On Change in Data Analytics

<span style="color: purple;">Harsh, Fynd (Moderator):</span> Niraj, you guys have looked at technology from a data and analytics perspective for quite some time now for brands across the spectrum. 

What are you seeing beyond just the sales data in how retailers are using analytics to become better?

<span style="color: brown;">Niraj, BIRetail:</span> I think the data points don't change that much. What has changed is the utilization of that data. It is the art of automating. Decisions can be rule-based, and we have automated rules to help retailers decide that faster. So, Indian retailers are shifting away from using manpower for more elevated work than manual drudgery that can easily be done by a machine.

On Localization & Personalization

<span style="color: purple;">Harsh, Fynd (Moderator):</span> Historically, personalization in retail has been done at the local segment level. You look at that catchment, and you know what you put in the store for that catchment. But, Anshu, you've done both planning for offline and now e-commerce as well. 

How do you get personalization, beyond just localization, for your brand?

<span style="color: magenta;">Anshu, Forever New:</span> Being an Australian brand, the scope of localization is limited. Having said that, data and technology helped us understand our local customers. There were demographic differences between the Australian-fit silhouettes and styles we were getting and the average build of the Indian customers we were serving. So, we designed a new range more suited to our Indian audience.

Data also revealed that we were losing Indian customers as they found the silhouettes more edgy. Having understood the taste, we took care of it by adding minor design details, like adding a button to a plunging neckline, more suited for Indian taste.

So that’s localization, coming to personalization, as basic technology as a WhatsApp call is being used tremendously. The store associate uses a WhatsApp call for home shopping, and almost 14% of our revenues come from this. So, basic technology, but putting the right logic and idea behind it actually has worked for us.

On Hiring & Human Resources in Retail

<span style="color: purple;">Harsh, Fynd (Moderator):</span> So, it's funny that we are looking at hiring a new driver at home. And the first question we actually asked our driver was, "Do you know how to use Google Maps?” as opposed to saying, "What car do you drive?" or something like that! That's the expectation that everyone now has from staff. 

Nirmit, from a hiring perspective at the store level, 

How do they go about the business now versus a few years ago?

<span style="color: grey;">Nirmit, Apna:</span> We've created over 3,000 skill tags that are constantly changing to match job requirements. For example, earlier, warehouse workers used to just pick and manage items, but they now need to interact with ERP and inventory software. We add skill tags for every job role and candidate, so we can match them up with the right job and ask for skills at the interview level. This way, we set expectations from day zero and hire people who are a perfect match for the job.

Another thing would be to launch around 100 courses in collaboration with stalwarts across each industry to get trained talents. For example, one-month certificate courses from brands like Spykar and Metro for college graduates When certified, these brands get to hire them first, but if not, the person has learned a life skill they can utilize. Nobody can train better for Barista than Starbucks or Peets Coffee.

<span style="color: purple;">Harsh, Fynd (Moderator):</span> So there are a bunch of technologies that are ecosystem-driven, certain implementations are done at the organization, which puts immense expectations on the staff to actually adopt and utilize them. Well, Anshu, 

How do you identify forward-looking skill sets for your staff to utilize technology effectively, and how has hiring changed for you?

<span style="color: magenta;">Anshu, Forever New:</span> 70% of our business comes from brick-and-mortar stores. Earlier, we hired based on selling skills, like engaging with customers and recommending products. But as we shifted to omnichannel, we faced challenges with the mindset of our sales associates. They were only used to serving customers in-store and not packing orders for faceless customers in small stores. 

To address this, we changed our hiring process and set expectations upfront. We also incentivized every order packed and sale made. We now look for adaptability and flexibility in potential hires, not just selling skills. 

<span style="color: purple;">Harsh, Fynd (Moderator):</span> Sanjay, what does this mean for talent in the head office?

What are the areas where a retailer has to become more technology- enabled to serve customers?

<span style="color: orange;">Sanjay, Spykar:</span> It really depends on where you are in your business journey. Established brands may have employees who have been with them for a long time and may not be as tech-savvy as newer employees. 

So, I would divide my teams into those who need to be more tech-focused and those who don't. Some areas of our business require strong tech-knowledge and adaptability to changing environments, while others are more traditional. Therefore, I have different yardsticks for hiring people based on the specific needs of each area.

On Structural Changes Needed in an Organization

<span style="color: purple;">Harsh, Fynd (Moderator):</span>

What are the changes in your organization that you were forced to make that you would not have thought of making?

<span style="color: orange;">Sanjay, Spykar:</span> Yeah, something we did for our omnichannel retail. We changed the reporting of the omni team to retail instead of ecommerce or the tech team. This helped because when omni creates a nuisance in the store, the store takes ownership of it. If it's credited to ecommerce, it's like people are trespassing. By making this small change, we avoided that problem at Spykar. 

On Standardizing Across Many Stores, Including Franchises

<span style="color: purple;">Harsh, Fynd (Moderator):</span> So as you start going to more and more stores across the country,

How do you ensure that the entrepreneur is also optimizing for a standardized set of metrics and living up to the Spykar brand?

<span style="color: orange;">Sanjay, Spykar:</span> So, there is a dichotomy between the franchise’s and the brand's intents, but Spykar has built a level of expectation for franchisees to follow. Few of such expectations are bringing tech in our store or staff training so that they know more about the salient features of our product and convey it rightly to the consumers. So, we grapple with this since the staff is not on the brand’s payroll in the franchise model. 

Having said that, there are a few pros too, like franchisees can handle HR-related problems, which is helpful since Spykar is small and cannot deploy HR personnel everywhere. Also, entrepreneurs bring a sense of ownership that takes care of certain negatives of being a franchisee versus a company-run store. 

<span style="color: purple;">Harsh, Fynd (Moderator):</span>

How do you start creating systems to scale and standardize across so many stores? 

<span style="color: red;">Nissan, Metro:</span> So when I look at what we spent on technology this fiscal year, most of it has been for the integration of systems we already have in place rather than buying any new technology. There's a big difference between our store in Ghatkopar and our store in Gorakhpur. By integrating technologies across the board, it is possible to see individuality within the aggregated data. The integration creates a democratic nature for technology, which a lot of retailers can use. 

Institutional knowledge and experience also contribute to understanding the differences between stores.

On Way Forward

<span style="color: purple;">Harsh, Fynd (Moderator):</span>

What is the next thing that you're excited about in terms of serving your customers and using something new to serve them? 

<span style="color: orange;">Sanjay, Spykar:</span> Create an opportunity for consumers to learn about the product without any help from the store associate.

<span style="color: brown;">Niraj, BIRetail:</span> So analytics as a function is largely consumed in the head offices. What we look forward to is launching some complimentary products to get information to the people who are actually interacting with the customers. What we are doing is creating shop floor assistant apps to dispense minute-to-minute intelligence on the walk-in customer.

<span style="color: magenta;">Anshu, Forever New:</span> The next big thing is to understand our customers better by using data to segment them, for eg. discount-seekers, frequent bag-buyers etc. And then targeting our communication accordingly, since 70% of our business comes from repeat customers. We also need to bring in new customers and improve their experience.

<span style="color: red;">Nissan, Metro:</span> So it's not a singular technology that I'm gonna say is amazingly ‘wow’. I think it's the combination and the ability for us to collect, store, and then integrate that data and then analyze that data that makes it amazing.

<span style="color: grey;">Nirmit, Apna:</span> Yeah. So for us, given that we are a hiring platform, the next big thing is how do we get more skill- driven hiring? Whenever we see a skill gap, how do we go and work with the corporates and reskill the people? So that the same workforce can learn faster and be more productive on day one.

<span style="color: blue;">Bertram, Protean:</span> The way I see this unfolding in five years, physical, assisted, and digital tech will intersect, and customers will become more accustomed to omnichannel experiences. There is a lot more to come in assisted tech. It would be real gold for brands to get real-time insights into their customers. I'm placing my bets personally on digital tech. Experiences like virtual reality will allow brands to connect with consumers, not just on their platforms but also on third party platforms. So I'm very excited to see how that shapes up the marketplace experience in the future.

<span style="color: green;">Sugam, Bestseller:</span> One is to make the customer journey more seamless and easy. We've talked about the challenges of omnichannel, but we are already evolving. It should become even more effortless to enable customers to buy, pick up, and return items from anywhere.

The second is, with brick-and-mortar spaces getting smaller, how to bring more choice for the customer within that small brick-and-mortar space?

<span style="color: purple;">Harsh, Fynd (Moderator):</span> All right. Thank you, everyone, for sharing your thoughts and views. That's a wrap for all of us. 

L-R: Nirmit Parikh (Apna), Bertram Dsouza (Protean), Sugam Asani (Bestseller), Harsh Shah (Fynd)
Leadership Insights: The Top Retail Minds on the Magic of Technology in Driving Customer Experience
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