Ready access to information, straightforward management of accurate data, and visibility of operations. Sharing of resources and streamlined processes. Tracking and traceability.
This will read like a ‘must do’ list for governments the world over, as they prepare lockdown exit strategies. There aren’t a whole lot of positives that can be taken from the past few months, yet the period has emphasised the importance of collaboration – of working together to achieve the above goals, with the ultimate goal of getting things back on track.
Governments are not the only ones trying to find ways of getting things back on track. Retailers and consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies are also looking for ways to move back towards ‘normality’, boosting production, encouraging sales and continuing/starting their digital transformation. The above list therefore applies to governments in terms of tracking Covid-19 and economic recovery, but it must also apply to businesses seeking to pick up or embark on digitalisation.
Can retail deliver?
Admittedly, this will not be an easy task. The retail and consumer goods sectors have been badly hit. High streets are closed, and most retailers have had to contend with already dwindling numbers of in-store visitors dropping to zero. The retail sector in the UK – where sellers of non-essential items have been closed since 23rd March – suffered its worst ever decline in footfall in the four weeks from 5th April to 2nd May, with a drop of around 80.1 per cent on last year.
Supermarkets on the other hand may be the envy of much of the sector, but they too have had some serious issues to contend with. In addition to implementing social distancing measures in-store and managing health and safety concerns for employees, grocers have had to rapidly scale online operations to deal with demand. This has, for the large part, been successful, with Tesco doubling its number of delivery slots to 1.2 million in just six weeks, and reports that Sainsbury was set to increase its number of slots by more than 75 per cent during the first week of May.
Scaling a business online and digitising business processes in such a tight timeframe is not ideal. It has however, been a necessity, with the past few weeks providing impetus for many companies to redesign their IT landscape. The changes may have happened more rapidly than many businesses may have liked, yet the need for ready access to product information, straightforward management of accurate data, visibility of operations and so on, has been a long time coming.
A physical past and a virtual reality
With business processes becoming increasingly digitised, new business models and publishing channels can be created, enabling businesses to reach new customers in new markets. Unable to increase their physical footprint at present, this should therefore be seized as an opportunity by retailers and CPGs to grow their virtual presence, and create new customer experiences in new geographies.
Indeed, there is already growing interest for international brands in markets such as China. In February, the number of Chinese consumers buying imported products on Tmall Global (part of the Alibaba group) increased by more than 52 per cent year on year. More than 200,000 new products have been launched on Tmall Global in the last three months alone, and the number of international brands increased 327 per cent from last year.
Just as consumers have been adjusting to a dispersed, all-virtual shopping environment, so too are businesses contending with scattered, remote workforces almost totally reliant on digital infrastructure. Much like bricks-and-mortar stores, many physical offices have been forced to close due to lockdown restrictions, with habitats instead shifting to the digital domain.
Many workforces are now disseminated, spread across different physical and remote locations. It is become clear that this shift will not be a temporary blip but the start of a long-term, wholesale change in the way that businesses operate.
Giving a DAM about collaboration
This has posed challenges to teams used to collaborating in person and to organisations that have nurtured a strong workplace culture. Launching a new product line or updating a website with seasonal content, for example, may have typically involved brainstorming meetings and conversations with colleagues sharing the same office space. Digital assets (images, video, text, logos, etc.), product information and customer data may have existed in siloes, but this was an issue which could be reduced (though not totally overcome) due to the fact that individuals were in the same physical space, making in-person collaboration easier.
Now, many teams are finding that these traditional ways of working are untenable. Managing product information using various spreadsheets, enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, and product lifecycle management (PLM) tools that reside in product departments are causing bottlenecks, creating risk in terms of inaccuracies in data entry, and making collaboration a lot more difficult.
Many retailers and CPGs have already mitigated the problem of closed physical stores by scaling their online presence. Now they must take the same approach in order to overcome the problem of remote workforces. Combining a digital asset management (DAM) solution with a product information management (PIM) platform will provide a single, unified, cloud-based tool that can be accessed and leveraged by employees wherever they happen to be based. In addition to aiding collaboration and overcoming current Covid-19 related challenges, adopting such technology will also have long-term benefits for digital transformation. The combined solution will allow teams to streamline and redefine processes, enabling the production, customisation, and distribution of product content to multiple sales channels easily.
Digital assets which have traditionally existed in siloes can be centralised in a single system, which also collates product information, such as technical specs, sizes, and colours which once sat in ERP or PLM platforms. A retailer’s reduced design team returning to the office will be able to work on that website update with its head of marketing still based in a home office in London, while information on product availability to populate the site can be updated and accessed in real time by a delivery/logistics/partner/sales team in China.
We are in a stage of huge market disruption, and the outlook for a return to ‘normal’ remains uncertain. Instead of trying to return to old ways of working, now is therefore an ideal time for retailers and CPG firms to reflect on their digital transformation roadmap and identify how best to update their IT for optimum ROI. Consumers have withdrawn from shops to homes – which itself was part of a wider trend way before Covid-19 hit – but they have not retreated from the virtual shopping space. Instead of moving ‘back towards normality’, businesses should look forward to digital transformation.
Sairah Mojib, Head of Marketing, EMEA, Widen