Blog | Feb 12, 2021

The Future of Retail Post COVID-19: Innovation & Transformation

The Future of Retail Post COVID-19: Innovation & Transformation

Accelerating Innovation in Retail with the Digital Workforce

As the pandemic continues and the dust settles on the recent Brexit trade deal, retailers remain firmly focused on the immediate, business-critical priorities - managing huge fluctuations in customer demand, protecting and optimizing complex supply chains, and delivering first-class customer experience across multiple channels.

Whilst different segments of the retail sector have fared very differently during the pandemic, one thing that has been true across the entire industry is that businesses have had to change and innovate in order to survive.

Digital transformation projects have been rolled out almost overnight, at a speed and at a scale that would have seemed reckless prior to the pandemic. Many retailers had to pivot from a multi-channel or digital-first strategy, to a ‘digital-only’ approach; others have had to take their products and services online for the very first time.

As John Roberts, founder of AO, the online electricals retailer, remarked in May last year, the coronavirus crisis has accelerated five years of online shopping behaviour changes “into only five weeks”.

Big questions around retail post COVID-19

It remains to be seen how consumer preferences and behaviors will evolve beyond the pandemic, with the desire to return to old habits, balanced against a new appreciation of digital channels.

Inevitably, once it becomes safe to do so, many people will return to in-store shopping as they value the ability to touch and feel products, not to mention the more enjoyable social aspect.

However, the general shift towards digital channels will not be reversed, as consumers have become accustomed to the ease and convenience that online shopping delivers.

Many of the retailers we work with predict that shoppers will ultimately demand a seamless, hyper personalised and immersive omni-channel experience, with the option to view products in person should they want to.

Therefore, if retailers want to engage customers in this highly competitive and unpredictable market, technology innovation will need to be more important than ever.

The challenge of innovation-as-usual

Rapid and constant digital transformation is now essential to drive sales, build customer loyalty and to stay ahead of the competition.

However, as the past 12 months have shown, many businesses in retail and beyond, simply don’t have the structures or resources required to deliver this type of ‘innovation-as-usual’ across their operations. Too often, efforts to drive through digital transformation initiatives are held back by legacy IT systems, which are siloed, leading to an inability to gather and analyse data across the organization to make informed decisions. On top of this, retailers are severely restricted by the finite resources and skills that they have at their disposal – they simply don’t have the capacity to pursue innovation at the speed and scale they’d like.

Some retailers have succeeded in delivering rapid innovation over the past 12 months, through sheer necessity and survival instinct. But business leaders are recognizing that they now need to embed frameworks, governance structures and technology platforms that enable them to achieve this level of transformation on an ongoing, sustainable basis. They need to shift to a proactive approach in order to stay competitive, respond to consumer demands and optimise how work is done in the future.

The retail innovation race

Innovation is now the key battleground for retailers, and the bar has been set high as a result of the pandemic. ‘Good enough’ is no longer good enough.

Whether it’s bricks and mortar retailers offering drive-through collection and contactless payments, or e-commerce sites launching virtual changing rooms, using AR and VR technology to enable shoppers to ‘try on’ clothes, the retail industry is set for massive change over the next five years.

In fact, the speed and scale of change that we’ve seen in retail in 2020 is likely to pale into insignificance compared with what is around the corner.

Intelligent automation can provide retailers with the agile resources they need to compete, providing a platform for constant transformation and world-class, game-changing customer experience.

Digital workers - the catalyst for continual digital transformation

Intelligent automation is now seen as a way to overcome the dual challenge of legacy IT systems and resourcing issues, and to accelerate digital transformation programs.

By introducing an intelligent digital workforce, organizations no longer need to use their best (and expensive) talent as the integration layer between disparate systems, taking data from one system, manipulating, interpreting and manually transferring it to another.

Instead, digital workers can undertake repetitive, process-driven tasks, freeing up people to focus on high-value work based around key strategic priorities – such as customer experience and revenue generation.

This is good for the business but also for employees who can undertake more creative and rewarding work, aided by their ‘Digital Assistants’.

With intelligent automation, retailers can modernize their applications without having to overhaul their entire infrastructure, the traditional ‘rip and replace’ approach, and avoid hugely expensive and lengthy integration projects, which rarely deliver on promises.

A fully scalable digital workforce which can be deployed wherever it is needed and allows retailers to be more agile in their approach to innovation. Making digital transformation seems a lot more achievable and a lot less daunting.

This means that retailers can pursue initiatives they would never have considered with fixed IT architectures and traditional resourcing models.

Allowing them to drive through innovation in critical areas such as payments and supply chain management and access real-time data and insight to predict and manage demand, make smarter HR decisions and deliver enhanced customer experience across every channel.

Join us next week as we speak to Alec Sutherland, former automation lead at John Lewis Partnership, about the common mistakes that retailers make when they first start an RPA program.

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