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Retail: How to harness automation to strengthen competition

(Image credit: Image Credit: MNBB Studio / Shutterstock)

It’s a no brainer that technology is central to retaining a competitive edge for most businesses today. But the rapid rate of technological development, both for end users and in the “back office”, has made it difficult for companies to judge which systems and tools they should invest in – and further, how to evaluate the success of these investments.

Nowhere is this rat race more apparent than in the retail sector. Having had to contend with the phenomenon of online shopping in recent years, they’re now dealing with a fresh wave of digitally savvy competitors, in tandem with other extremely complex challenges.

Retailers have always had high standards to follow – but they’re under more pressure than ever to keep people’s attention today, and being able to provide a seamless, omnichannel shopping experience is integral to that.

Harness software to get ahead 

It’s no wonder that retail management solutions designed specifically to manage these nuts and bolts have risen in popularity in recent years.

These are highly sophisticated systems, which can automate almost all business processes, from HR & Procurement, to financial procedures. They also have the ability to manage supply chains (both internally and externally with suppliers), provide real-time product and price management, and complete manufacturing tasks.

Retail management solutions have been responsible for catapulting many businesses – retailers or otherwise – far into the future, by taking control of the business basics and enabling them to focus on the “important stuff” like growth and innovation. But, as with any kind of major technological upgrade, transitioning to one does not come without its challenges. At Expleo, we’ve seen this firsthand, having supported numerous retail clients through this difficult, but highly rewarding transition. 

Out with the old, in with the new

A common obstacle retailers face when wanting to use a retail management system, hinges around the capabilities and limitations of their existing tech stacks.

Increasing digitization in the sector has meant there has been a flourish of new technologies entering the market that promise to improve customer experience and increase efficiencies. The result for many retailers over the course of several years is that they’re now relying on a ‘mishmash’ of niche tools and suppliers. But the challenge is, most retailers don’t want to dissolve their entire tech stack and start completely afresh, due to the expense and time involved. That means they usually need to integrate new and existing tech stacks.

We regularly find some legacy systems cannot be easily integrated with new technology, for instance. Sometimes the migration is too complex or costly to complete, so it’s not worth pursuing, and in others the tech simply loses its functionality. This might mean stripping them out later, which is very expensive and can negate certain processes. To avoid this, we would always recommend completing a full audit of the existing tech stack before moving forward. In the fast-moving world of retail, however, this is often easier said than done. 

No one size fits all solution

Retailers are not all the same, and equally, there is no “one size fits all” retail management solution – even despite the depth and breadth of the platform. So, there are occasions when this might be the right choice for a business, but in order to get the best out of it, we might need to make adjustments when implementing. This adds another layer of complexity to the operation and can mean additional guidance is necessary.

In the case of one retailer we worked with at Expleo, the business evolution was so complex that the system we were trying to implement was not rich enough to manage it. So, we acted as the independent delivery assurance test partner on behalf of the client during the design and development phases, along with the client’s chosen partner who built a new, functionally rich, bespoke solution. Expleo tested it from almost inception through to the completion and implementation. The new solution mimics the very complex end user and business process flows, while also “interfacing” with the software as the main engine through API technology. It is in these cases especially that it can pay to draw on the expertise of technology and engineering experts outside your organization.

Powerful, but not invincible

The final challenge comes with testing.

The sheer level of complexity of the retail management solutions on the market today means there’s more chance for things to go wrong - both at implementation stage, and further down the line. Ultimately, you need to be in a position to mitigate against risk both before the system is live, and afterwards, so there are no nasty surprises.

End to end testing of the platform and how it is integrated with the business is therefore crucial to ensure that it works as it should. Often that means working with an independent quality assurance provider.

Automated testing not only safeguards quality, but also adds value by providing immediate speed and efficiency gains. First, machine learning cuts through the testing workload and sieves the data at scale, surfacing the highest-priority test cases. Then, artificial intelligence analyses this data in real-time, so we can respond to risks before they become issues.

Not only is this an efficient way of minimizing risk, but it can be a huge cost saver. We’ve had companies admit to relying on accountants to test financial aspects of systems like Oracle Financials before, but in fact, automated testing removes this need, meaning those employees can spend time on more high value business tasks.

Hard work reaps rewards

Retailers are hugely complex organizations, so introducing a retail management solution can have powerful results - but do take expert guidance to get it right. You only need to look at companies like Woolworths to understand that half-hearted upgrades often end in tears. The key to successful digital transformation is in partnership and ultimately relying on support of software engineers, external technology consultants and your own IT team to see the project through to endgame. But once the hard work is done, the rewards soon follow.

Stephen Burnley, Client Delivery Manager, Expleo