Over the last few decades, the commentary across the retail industry has indicated the demise of brick-and-mortar retail stores. With the advent of online retail, and the convenience it brought, it looked like the transition would be rapid. But the evidence shows a much slower transition than expected. Consumer tastes have proven stubborn and much has been the same in the remote working setup brought on by the pandemic. Very few of the colleagues and customers that I work with speak overly positively about working from home, they prefer the security of an office environment. It is clear that a virtual experience still isn’t quite good enough to replace a physical experience.
The long and the short of it is that physical stores are here to stay. Even post-pandemic, many retailers are resisting the transition to full online retail, favouring a hybrid model instead which seems to be more in line with customer tastes and behaviours. However, what the presence of online retail does mean is that the strategic importance of physical stores has increased massively. With the convenience of an online store always in the back of a customer’s mind, they expect 5-star service in the physical stores they make the effort to go to, otherwise it’s not worth their while. The way to do this, is to provide a fully integrated model that blends the best of both worlds, the convenience of e-retail with the personalised service only the physical channels can provide.
Providing this requires highly effective management of retail stores through their store lifecycle, be it site location, re-fit, closure or management. This is fundamental in providing a service to the customer that ensures it is generating maximum value to the retailer, especially as they are so often among the most expensive assets the retailers have on their books. Across an increasingly aware and picky customer base, anything short of customer service excellence could potentially lose a customer.
Physical stores have become an integral part of the online fulfilment supply chain process, with many major retailers offering ‘click-and-collect’ services. This comes as online retailers identify a lack of physical collections points as a major strategic weakness given expensive delivery costs and an overwhelming preference to see certain products before they buy. The clearest evidence of this is in Amazon’s supermarkets Amazon Fresh. Even the greatest e-retailer in the world has identified that consumers massively prefer to physically see the food that they buy.
Today, more than ever, in this highly unpredictable environment brought on by the pandemic, managing the lifecycle of stores has become a huge burden for many retailers. Some stores have closed temporarily, others have elected for a full shutdown until they can guarantee more certainty. However, depending on the size of the retailers, this has the potential to include a real estate portfolio of hundreds, if not thousands of locations. For those organisations that are still locked in manual tools like emails, spreadsheets and phone calls, that process of opening up and getting back to ‘normal’ is going to be time consuming, inefficient, and error prone. On top of this, it makes it almost impossible for the head of store operations to have an accurate, real-time view of information as simple as a date for when stores are reopening.
The biggest selling point of the ServiceNow platform, is the ability to consolidate your entire operational estate onto a single platform. This makes it possible to standardise processes and improve accuracy across, what can be, simple operational tasks. ServiceNow is often recognised for its market leadership in the IT Service Management space, but the true value of using any ServiceNow product comes from the development platform that any of the products they release are built on. This same development platform can be used by retailers to build custom solutions to their store management challenges using ServiceNow’s App Engine. App Engine has been designed to allow citizen development with little or no coding required. This makes it possible for store lifecycle process owners to build new workflow applications even if they have no previous knowledge of coding.
A simple store opening, and ongoing management example is listed below. This example demonstrates the key value areas of bringing all store data onto a centralised platform enabling real-time updates, making it easier for individuals from across the organisation to access data and making it easy to create new data entries based on standardised categorisation.
This is a very simple example and it should definitely be taken with a pinch of salt, but it clearly shows the value of using workflow to digitally enable the organisation.
In summary, we may not have thought it a few years ago, but the pandemic has accelerated change in many ways. However, the conclusion is, physical stores are here to stay, but only the absolute best will survive. They have the potential to be a huge value-add, the kind that encourages customers away from competitors, but it also has the potential to push them the other way. Those that become digitally enabled give themselves the best possible chance to be part of the former group.