Kristin Howell, Global Vice President for Retail Solution Management for SAP and Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing (TJLC) Corporate Advisory Board member, shared her insights in a virtual seminar on October 16, 20202 hosted by the TJLC on the how technology is shaping and accelerating change in retail at this pivotal time in the industry. Her insights were particularly interesting given that the onset of COVID-19 not only disrupted the retail space but also forced companies to reexamine their strategies for success.
Howell connected with students who are going to enter the workforce soon and how those careers might be altered given the shifting needs of customers. She highlighted the fact that the pandemic brought to light weaknesses and challenges companies were facing. Howell shared that, “Companies that were doing well, are now doing better. Ones that were struggling are struggling now more than ever.”
From Howell’s perspective she has been able to see that, “As retail businesses look at how they are not only going to ride out this curve but come out stronger at the other end, technology has been a key driver of those strategies and models for success.” This environment gives students an opportunity, more than ever, to look at ways to grow their knowledge in the area of retail technology. The changes they have seen in their jobs and internships in the industry as well as in their own personal shopping methods and experiences demonstrate this shift.
Retailing and Consumer Science senior and member of the TJLC's Student Advisory Board, Brenna Doyle, shared after listening in to Howell’s talk that, “I think it’s important for retail students to understand retail technology and its uses because it will give them job security. Every job in the industry is being adapted and students entering the workforce will need these skills and a high-level understanding of how technology works so that they can be impactful.”
Howell shared with the top four ways in which she is seeing retail companies leverage technology to create new experiences while driving efficiencies, generating speed and reducing costs. First, stores are changing their approach to order fulfillment. They are evolving into experience and service centers as well as being utilized as distribution centers. Associates are not often being called up to que and pick product and get it to the customer, as they would in a warehouse setting. New methods of inventory control and communication are required to make store pick-up a reality.
Howell also defined and highlighted the value of machine learning. A company’s ability to obtain needed insights and act on them in real time is critical for success. Companies have an abundance of data but a new focus on analytics and leveraging data has been at the forefront of successful change for companies in the retail space. She shared that the use of cloud technology has been pivotal in effective change. Being able to share information within the company and deploy technology quickly and economically has had immense importance during the pandemic.
Lastly, Howell focused on each company’s ability to embrace new business models. Companies who have used this time to rethink and embrace, from their foundation, new business models, are seeing success. She shared, “It isn’t about changes here and there, like the ability to use big data or enabling robotics in the store. It’s the opportunity to connect with new markets and meet people where they are.”
Howell was able to reinforce the value that technology brings to doing business in the retail industry. Doyle shared that she learned a lot from Howell’s talk. “Learning about Google search integrations into data platforms for retailers was something I knew happened but I didn't know how. I also learned about the importance of cloud computing and knowing the difference between buying and renting storage. I have learned a lot about SaaS [Software as a Service] at my new internship since I am working for a B2B company, but it's always interesting to see how it is directly affecting a business on the retail end.” After listening to Howell, Doyle said she is looking for ways to enhance her understanding of the many growing and varying uses of technology in the retail industry.