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Microsoft’s Toni Townes-Whitley on the outlook for retail in the digital age

“Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone. For the times they are a-changin’.”

This Bob Dylan song was used by Levi Strauss & Co. to open its standing-room-only session at this year’s National Retail Federation BIG Show & Expo, held in New York City each January.

In today’s digital age, it’s a fitting lyric for a global, well-established brand like Levi’s that is celebrating 150 years in business. But it’s just as relevant for younger, born-on-the-web retailers. No one is immune to the seismic shifts that the retail industry is undergoing, stoked by swift and unprecedented technology innovation.

NRF 2018 was Microsoft’s first big industry event of the year, and I had the opportunity to attend and speak at the conference. With more than 35,000 retail and technology attendees from around the globe, it offered a pulse on where the industry is today, and where it’s headed. Here are my observations and thoughts.

Retailers’ top priorities: customers and employees as VIPs

The primary topic of conversation at NRF was the customer. Whether it was putting the shopper at the center of their business, transforming customer engagement or delivering seamless experiences across a consumer’s shopping journey, retailers recognize that the customer is the top priority and needs to be targeted with unprecedented levels of personalization.

Retail leaders and innovators are taking the forward mindset that all customers are VIPs, and that’s an inspiring shift. Those that succeed first will win the hearts and minds of consumers.

Winning loyalty with employees also stood out as a top area of focus at NRF. Retailers clearly recognize that their workforce is a competitive advantage.

Toni Townes-Whitley, CVP, Microsoft Industry
Toni Townes-Whitley, CVP, Microsoft Industry

There were some interesting discussions that showcased the innovative thinking that’s happening across brands of all sizes—from Walmart to startup entrepreneurs like &pizza. The common theme is that retailers are looking at the future potential of their employees, investing in helping them succeed, and fostering a sense of belonging and commitment to their companies—an essential component for millennial and Gen Z workers.

Digital innovation: the fuel for reinvention and growth in the retail industry

The latest advances in technologies, including cloud, big data and advanced analytics, artificial intelligence and mixed reality, are fueling the retail industry’s reinvention and growth.

Retailers can now get the most from their data — infusing real-time insights wherever and whenever they’re needed — to put customers truly at the center of their business and drive new levels of service, employee productivity, efficiencies and innovation.

  • Imagine being able to predict what might happen, what should happen and the best ways to optimize results. What if you could increase real demand for a product by predicting what a consumer will buy? How can you ensure that the right level of inventory and assortment are available at every location?
  • When a shopper visits your store, what if sensor technologies could pair with their mobile device and help identify them? In this way your store associates could engage in a personalized manner, further differentiating your brand.
  • Or imagine intelligent bots that can determine the right time and place to engage with the shopper at home, based on behavioral information coupled with machine learning. Providing this level of service enables retailers to create a personalized and seamless experience, no matter which channel the customer uses to shop.

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The changing relationship between business and IT

The NRF event is where the retail and tech communities come together, so it’s worth noting a shift in this relationship. As retailers embrace digital innovation to compete, the connection between business and IT is changing, as they realize that working together is integral to success. As I told session attendees, our successes are what you adopt and use, versus what we build.

Too, the relationship between retailers and their technology providers are changing. I had an interesting dinner conversation with customers who spoke with us on-stage. One of our global customers noted that it’s no longer a ‘relationship’ between retailer and technology vendor; it’s a partnership.

Learning from the leaders

More than 35 Microsoft partners and customers joined us in our booth and on-stage at this year’s event, including retailers and brands like Build-A-Bear Workshop, Dolce & Gabbana, grocery chain Kroger, Lowe’s Home Improvement and Macy’s. Attendees saw first-hand how these, and other industry leaders are innovating with Microsoft technology to make creative use of data, and to transform their customer experiences, employee engagement, operations and products.

The times are certainly changing, and I left the show inspired. The retail industry’s enthusiasm was infectious. The idea of a retail apocalypse was debunked and buried. In this new year, I heard only excitement and focus on how to best accelerate growth and innovation.

Today’s digital advancements will power the retail industry forward in new and exciting ways, and Microsoft plans to be there to provide the solutions and resources to help retailers reinvent the customer journey and drive digital transformation in all areas of their business.