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The Thursday Stack: Retail’s Big Show

The thursday stack retailers

I calculate that each attendee at NRF 2019 at the Javits Center in New York had about 45 square feet of floor space. But that includes disused corridors, store-rooms, and stairwells.  Believe me, it felt packed. Nearly 40,000 attendees, 800 exhibitors, and I can’t find my meeting room. The Javits experience again. But worth it, partlyrent  to marvel at the sheer volume and variety of solutions and services available to cutting edge retail brands, and partly to catch up on what some familiar (and less familiar) vendors are doing.


One thing I noticed, walking the exhibit floor(s) was that the word “experience” was ubiquitous — on booths, on banners, in hand-outs, and on everyone’s lips. “Customer experience management as a platform is going to be table stakes for brands, and retailers in particular, to be able to deliver on the promise of personalization at scale, and driving experience over and above product and price,” said Michael Klein, Adobe’s director of industry strategy and marketing for retail, travel, and CPG.

Adobe had come armed with the final online shopping data for the 2018 holiday season (from Adobe Analytics), as well as a fistful of platform enhancements. As usual Adobe had made holiday shopping forecasts at the beginning of the season, and as usual had been proven 98 percent-plus accurate. This time around, the prediction was $124 billion of revenue; the actual outcome, $126 billion — for the first time, there were daily average revenues of $2 billion. Over the 61 day holiday period, Adobe’s forecasts tracked actual spending very closely, seeing spikes for Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday, and on December 17, which is typically the date for shipping cut-offs.

BOPIS (buy online, pick up in store) saw 15 percent growth YOY, and Adobe predicts continued double digit growth, especially with more retailers rushing to implement it, and digitally native brands (Warby Parker) adding physical outlets. Most significantly — and most predictably — the big headline is mobile. For the first time, smartphone is the “predominant source of traffic,” said Klein, “at 51 percent; nine percent for tablet, and 40 percent for desktop” (on a seasonal basis). “That is the reality, and it’s not going away,” said Klein. “From a revenue perspective, mobile commanded 31 percent, up from 26 percent last year.”

Which brought us to the main product announcement. You need to know about PWAs. Peter Sheldon, senior director of commerce strategy, joined Adobe with last year’s Magento acquisition. “For the last two years, we’ve been working on a project to bring PWAs (progressive web apps) to the Magento platform.  We’ve been collaborarting with Google on this initiative.”

So why PWAs? “If you think about it, most websites today are responsive web design.” In other words, they render automatically for the different screen sizes (PC, laptop, tablet, phone). This means that mobile websites, “visually are okay, the navigation is okay, but they’re very slow to interact with.” Load times can be a frustrating six to seven seconds. The native app experience, in contrast, can be “slick” — but native apps are expensive to build, expensive to maintain, and consumers are reluctant to download them to make a single purchase. “It’s fine if you’re Amazon,” Sheldon said, “because everyone uses it, but if you’re a retailer and don’t have that constant engagement with your consumer, no-one’s going to download it.”

PWAs provide something like a native app experience (one to two second load times), but they live on the mobile web. No downloading required, and they’re comparatively easy to update (html and Java script; it’s possible to make multiple changes a day, and run A/B testing). Retailers adopting PWAs, said Sheldon, are seeing “a big jump in all their metrics. The latest version of Magento provides a development studio for clients to build their own PWAs. They work for desktop as well as mobile, so Adobe is predicting that merchants will move away from traditional web experiences as their web properties come up for renewal and refreshment. Many will migrate away from traditional apps too.

The technology, of course, is not exclusive to Adobe. “We’re trying to make it easy for our merchants to adopt it,” said Sheldon.

The other Adobe announcements tap into the platform’s AI capabilities, known as Adobe Sensei:

  • Virtual Analyst: automatically surfaces opportunities and identifies (and explains) anomalies — at speed
  •  Improved integration between Creative Cloud and Ad Cloud to generate “on the fly” personalized ads for users, typically using cookie information as identifiers
  • For digital asset management geeks, AI-powered tagging of video content, even including UGC video content (available in Spring 2019), and
  • AI-powered recommendations for cross-sell/up-sell modules or widgets (available “in a few months”).

Not as well known in the States yet is U.K.-based BookingBug — a platform which addresses pain points where digital meets physical through scheduling, event, and queuing software. But that’s not all, as founder and CEO Glenn Shoosmith explained. “For us, it’s all about time. It’s the customer’s time, the staff’s time, and both are valuable.” But what does scheduling have to do with the retail experience? “Our first enterprise retail client was Levi’s. They were doing a campaign for womens’ jeans fittings. People were shopping for jeans online, but returning a lot of them, and they wanted to get people into the store for a better experience, and make them evangelists for the brand.”  BookingBug is now seeing interest from wine stores (wine tastings), bookstores (book signings), banks (classes and tutorials) — a range of circumstances in which the customer experience can be enhanced by co-ordinated scheduling. “These are great ways to get people back into big, expensive spaces.”

Almost predictably, the data BookingBug collects around scheduling and events can be pushed into Salesforce and other CRM and marketing automation solutions.  “Every system wants to be the system of record. I was always aware that BookingBug would never be the system of record, except for the appointments themselves. There’s always a spider’s web of integrations, and one of our best pieces of technology is our integration layer, that allows us to integrate into a lot of other products.”

Shoosmith’s aim is to evolve BookingBug into a truly innovative platform, separating itself from the point-solution competition. “We’re trying to have a broader view of technology, with— a really strong development platform, and a lot of open APIs.” The vision is consistent with BookingBug’s new interface, Studio, a UI in which every panel, module, and element can be revised, extended, and customized, and to which new third party apps can be added. Studio has two facets: it tracks  not only interactions with customers, but also staff engagement and performance. “What connects the two is time,” Shoosmith said.


One thing that seemed consistent across the big-name vendors at the show was total buy-in when it came to the customer experience. “Oracle CX has made huge investments in the core pieces of digital experience, and then we have a global retail business unit which focuses on the in-store pieces — the Micros acquisition.” That’s what I learned from Katrina Gosek, who sits on Oracle’s digital CX team as senior director for product strategy., dealing with eCommerce, loyalty, AI, and even CPQ for complex consumer transactions (e.g. highly customizable products).

“Why experience has become so important to retailers today,” she continued, “is because so much of the interaction with the brand has moved outside of the store.” Oracle, like Adobe, is alert to the move to mobile: “We saw 60 percent growth in mobile over the holidays, like Thanksgiving Day — maybe to get away from their relatives — so it’s become more complex in how to capture that attention, if they’re not coming to interact with you face-to-face in a store.”

Mobile interactions, interactions with loyalty programs, contact with customer service: it all needs to come together. “It becomes difficult to make that connected and seamless from an experience standpoint. It all comes down to data, and how it transfers between all of those systems, especially for customers who buy multiple products from Oracle.” One big focus for Oracle’s product and engineering teams, she said, is to ensure that digital systems are closely connected with retail systems in the store. “When you can bring those two things together, that amplifies the success rate; retailers struggle where those two systems are separate. I believe that stores are a really strong engagement point, and will continue to be.”

If we’re now entering the experience economy, we need to recognize that things like loyalty programs and subscription services are no longer optional add-ons; they can be of key significance to those consumers who are interested in buying —experiences rather than products. “We’re entering an interesting era, because what we’re seeing — both on the retail/B2C side, and even in industrial manufacturing — is that people don’t want to own things any more; they want to have access. It’s as if ownership has reached an end.  You want to rent a car, or subscribe to a car. Maybe you have an SUV today and want to trade it in for a convertible for the weekend. One thing that’s driving this is the amount of IoT data you have embedded in devices these days, so that brands can monitor the performance of whatever you’re using, push recommendations to you, and optimize your experience. IoT is a huge opportunity for consumer goods.”


If data serves as the foundation for seamless experiences, no wonder customer data platforms are garnering more and more attention. I caught up with Ryan Willette and Karen Wood of AgilOne, an AI-driven CDP for large omnichannel enterprises. We’ve always resolved the customer identity, and provided analytics and the ability to segment customers to provide the relevant experience,” said Willette, global VP of client success. “Since releasing our version 6 platform in 2016, we’ve been releasing ever more functionality, because based on the architecture of that release we could do more real-time data integration as well as connectivity to third party systems. A good example would be someone browsing a website who then calls the call center: our system can bring the web data in real-time, our APIs can connect with a Salesforce Service Cloud or Oracle’s technology, and display what that user was just looking at on the website.”

Wood, senior director and head of marketing, cited configurability as an important element in the current offering. We sell predominantly to larger retailers with a lot of stores, silos, and data sources, so having the platform configurable — and not as a one-off thing — is important. Also, the way we do our machine learning is configurable.” This means clients can push their own product categories, business logic, or naming conventions into the system.

AgilOne’s sweet spot is the large to very large B2C enterprise. “For us,” said Wood, “the more complexity of their use cases, the better. If they have lots of different data sources, that’s something we can solve for.” Willette interjected: “If you have 100,000 customers, it’s not really hard to do what we are doing with a couple of people in a custom way, but when you are dealing with millions, and 50 or 60 data sources, it’s pretty hard to manage in-house.”


I spoke with Chris Hauca of SAP CX last October about some the vendor’s strategies for providing more agile and flexible options for retailers. At NRF, he doubled down on that theme. “Retailers have a lot of things that they’re challenged with — the pace of the market, the pace of change — they need agility, they need to be able to change really fast. Our cloud platform is focused on doing that, but the reality is that a cloud platform is now table stake; okay, big deal. The advantage we have is that we have a depth and breadth of features and capabilities that really are unmatched, for both B2C and B2B. The balance that we’re striking is being able to preserve that depth and breadth, while being able to bring into a cloud native model. Agility means a lot of different things, but it’s really as simple as ‘Can I make a lot of changes while still running my business?'”

Essentially, it’s about being able to change commerce and marketing tactics on a dime, without having to reach deep under the SAP hood and risk unintended consequences by tinkering with a complex architecture. “UIs are the things which are most frequently changed,” whether to launch a new campaign or highlight a product launch. “De-coupled UIs are our go-forward standard, specifically targeted for our B2C/retail customers. If you have a de-coupled UI, all the different endpoints (deskptop website, mobile site, in-store kiosk, probably 15 more) can all use the same commerce services.”

The approach is consistent with SAP’s commitment to micro-services. “A micro-service does just one thing, it’s isolated, and if I change it, I’m changing just that one thing.” The SAP cloud extension factory, announced last year, allows customers do build their own easily deployable micro-services on top of the platform.

Upcoming product releases?

  • Next generation product content management, coming mid-2019
  • Visual search, including the real-time ability to identify products showcased by influencers and surface your own, similar products by automatically identifying product attributes from images alone (yes, more AI)

“Our customers need to be omnipresent across all the different experiences their customers are having. We need to enable that, and ensure it’s frictionless,” he said. And part of that is being able to understand the customer’s context. “Are they doing a visual search in one of your stores, or one of your competitor’s stores? Or are they sitting at home? Being able to ingest that in real-time and act on it, that’s the challenge of today.”

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