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Consumer E-commerce Retail trends Technology

2023 Predictions: A UK Retail Rollercoaster

‘Permacrisis’ was declared the word of 2022, so what might 2023 bring?

There are reasons for cautious optimism, but first retailers are going to have to buckle up and brace themselves for more turbulence.

Spending more to buy less

Let’s briefly recap on retail’s Golden Quarter. Christmas was not the wipe-out that many of us had expected. After a bumpy couple of years with Covid cancelling Christmas, consumers were determined not to let illness, inflationary pressures or industrial action hamper their celebrations.

There are some caveats here: soft comparatives (remember Omicron?); supermarket success came at the expense of the hospitality sector; and perhaps most importantly much of the growth we saw was fuelled by inflation – in December retail sales were up in value terms but volumes continued to fall. In other words, consumers are spending more to buy less.

Inflation might be starting to ease, but consumers are still a long way from feeling the benefit. This ongoing erosion of spending power makes for a pretty gloomy outlook: consumer confidence tanked again in January, returning to a near 50-year low. Looking ahead, the deterioration in consumer sentiment is likely to persist throughout the first half of the year, at least. A reminder to retailers that value will remain firmly top of mind, purchases will continue to be incredibly considered, and big-ticket discretionary buys will be delayed.

Trimming the fat

The spending hangover is here and while there’s never a good time for subdued consumer demand, it’s especially painful when retailers are simultaneously grappling with their own cost inflation. No one is immune: this dangerous combination of soft demand and rising costs is impacting even the most bulletproof retailers. Amazon, for example, is laying off 6% of its global workforce, closing warehouses and putting the brakes on bricks & mortar expansion. 2023 will be a year of operational efficiencies for retailers, in many ways mirroring their own customers’ behaviour by trying to do more with less.

The other immediate challenge for retailers will be shifting excess stock, the result of over-ordering during the supply chain crisis and exacerbated by the current consumer weakness. With a glut of inventory and sluggish demand, retailers are left with little choice but to slash prices. But wait, haven’t they been doing that for the past four months? Aside from the obvious margin implications here, there is also the risk that shoppers are becoming desensitised as promotion fatigue sets in – or even worse, that they forget what it’s like to buy at full price.   

2023 opportunities: bricks & mortar resurgence and immersive digital experiences

There’s no sugarcoating it: 2023 is going to be another year of instability and uncertainty. But the retail industry is nothing if not resilient and I believe there are reasons to be optimistic. Stores are back, they’re repurposed and better than ever. We’ve been thrust into the future thanks to the pandemic-induced digitization of bricks & mortar retail, levelling the playing field and shifting the industry’s perception. Stores were once considered liabilities in this digital era, but they’ve been reconfigured for 21st century shopping and are now essential assets.

When it comes to customer experience, I believe that ‘tech-enabled human touch’ will be the next battleground, as retailers recognise the many opportunities that come with equipping your staff with the right digital tools. Mediocre experiences have become a thing of the past. Meanwhile, automation will climb higher up the agenda as retailers look to achieve operational efficiencies, despite the initial outlay, while simultaneously addressing the current labour shortage. In 2023, we’ll see more trials of autonomous vehicles delivering our goods and robots working alongside humans in warehouses.

Shoppers will continue to abandon e-commerce in droves now that we have returned to some semblance of normality. Some categories like food, fashion and furniture will never transition online like the rest of retail has, but it’s clear that as an industry we have been propelled towards a more digital world. And over the next decade, new, immersive digital experiences will redefine our perception of e-commerce – this is going to be the next big thing in retail. I’m still a bit of a metaverse sceptic. I know barriers can be knocked down but right now how many of us really have a VR headset kicking around at home? However, it’s clear that e-commerce is ready to evolve. Sure, all of the friction has been sucked out and today the experience is wildly accessible, slick, effortless. But is it any fun? Not really. It’s still far too transactional, too one-dimensional. This will change.

The next stage of e-commerce is all about immersion, discovery, curation, hyper-personalisation and escapism. And it’s already happening with augmented reality, virtual showrooms, live shopping, social commerce, 3D product views/virtual try-ons, video shopping consultations, among others. In the future, we won’t know where the physical world ends and the digital one begins.

Our hybrid way of living is here to stay and while businesses may still be acclimatising to the consequent shifts in demand patterns, longer term this will present new and exciting customer engagement opportunities. Despite tight budgets, investment in sustainability will remain high on the agenda in 2023, while opportunities to tackle the often-neglected post-purchase experience and explore new revenue streams such as retail media and third-party marketplaces will accelerate. In summary, short-term volatility will persist while consumers batten down the hatches, but as always the future of retail is bright for those who are willing to evolve.

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Technology

Zebra’s Mark Thomson and Natalie Berg on the Shifting Retail Landscape

Paid partnership with Zebra Technologies


It was wonderful to sit down with Mark Thomson to talk through the findings of the 15th Annual Global Shopper Study from Zebra Technologies.

Here’s what stood out for me:

💵 While nearly 75% of shoppers say inflation has caused them to delay purchases, they’re still returning to stores but most (76%) want to get in and out as quickly as possible.

😯 3 in 4 shoppers leave without the items they intended to purchase, with 49% blaming out-of-stocks.

📶 More than two-thirds of associates are concerned that shoppers are more connected to information than they are.

🙂 Seven-in-10 shoppers are satisfied with help from retail associates, compared to only 37% in 2007.

📱 Pandemic habits are sticking: approximately 90% of shoppers said they are likely to continue using technologies such as a personal shopping device, mobile cashless payment and self-checkout. And retailers are responding: nearly HALF of retailers said they would convert more manned till space to self-checkout in the future.

Watch the interview:

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For more, download the full report

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Technology

Turn Physical Stores Into Digital Assets, Says SES-imagotag

Paid partnership with SES-imagotag


Where next for bricks & mortar retail? Is hyper-personalisation about to go mainstream and what are the opportunities for retailers? I discuss all of this and more with Thierry Gadou, Chairman & CEO of SES-imagotag, a company that invents IoT and digital technologies that create a positive impact on society by enabling sustainable and human-centered commerce.

After surviving a pandemic and digital disruption more broadly, have physical stores finally proven their worth?

To be frank, the past two years haven’t been so negative for many omnichannel physical retailers. Many are actually better off than before COVID, despite the twin pressures of adapting to the consumer shift to digital and a challenging economic backdrop. Stores are back. The most successful retailers have recognised that their physical stores can be high value digital assets. Stores have proven that they are essential and at the very core of omnichannel commerce – but they need to be better stores. There is still a lot of work to do when it comes to transforming the physical space.

Let’s explore that transformation in more detail. How can retailers adapt their business models to stay relevant in this digital era?

Firstly, we have to acknowledge that there will be a divergence between the pioneers and the laggards. The winners are going to be those who make their physical stores an incredible experience by offering advice and levels of service that e-commerce companies cannot provide, while simultaneously repurposing their stores to become fulfilment and collection hubs.

Online retailers have historically had a huge data advantage but there is now an opportunity to leverage in-store data to optimise the customer experience. Take grocery, for example. E-commerce might be just 5-10% of a supermarket’s sales. Imagine all of the rich insights you could get if you actually transform your stores, where the bulk of sales actually take place, in a way that makes capturing that data possible in the first instance?

Right now, the only way retailers make money is to sell products. They are missing a clear opportunity to capitalise on shopper traffic. In-store retail media is a major opportunity. By digitising the shelf edge, retailers are able to provide very efficient advertising real estate to brands and create new sources of revenue which, in turn, can fund further store transformation. None of this is easy but the time has come. There is more opportunity today to implement such a vision than there has ever been.

Thierry Gadou, Chairman & CEO of SES-imagotag

So how can retailers leverage in-store data and what are the benefits?

Physical retailers have a good understanding of the products that have sold, but what about the ones that didn’t? We are helping retailers to produce more data in-store by monitoring the shelves, automating the detection of stockouts and enabling mobile interactions. In the cookie-less world that we are entering, first party data is going to be the rule of the game.

There are two aspects to this. Firstly, the in-store operational data – this is what happens at the shelf. So, it’s stockouts, facings, planogram compliance. Brands today are still sending tens of thousands of people into the field to manually check for themselves. We’ve seen enormous improvements to the supply chain over the past 20 years, but the reality is that the level of stockouts has remained unchanged. And that’s down to the inaccuracy of inventory data in stores. Retailers are sitting on an absolute goldmine, but they need to go after it. How do you get the data right? Through sensors and computer vision.

And this is a win-win-win opportunity. It provides an additional source of revenue for retailers, a huge cost savings for brands and a superior experience for customers in the form of fresher products and better availability.

The second aspect here is customer data. With digitised shelf edges, you are able to communicate with customers at the very strategic moment of purchase. You can reach them with very targeted, relevant messaging which can be further personalised by their mobiles.

We have scaled this and we know it works. Brands are seeing better CPMs (Cost per Mille) and higher conversion rates in stores. All of this is within reach today.

Let’s talk more about hyper-personalisation. Will we see a shift towards more tailored, real-time promotions in the future?

One of the great aspects of the physical store experience is discovery. In five minutes in a store, you can discover so many more products than you would if you were scrolling on your phone. So, that’s great but the range can also be overwhelming and hard to navigate.

We have worked with Monoprix, for example, to digitise the shelf edge and enable a highly tailored in-store experience. The customer can set their criteria, for example cheapest, organic-only or items with a low carbon footprint. The app will direct the customer to the aisle and, once there, he/she just presses a button on their smartphone and the products that correspond to the previously set criteria will flash in the aisle.

Another example is when you get closer to a product that you’re interested in, you’ll receive a tailored message to scan the QR code with your phone and perhaps receive a special promotion that is exclusively for you. So, when we talk about the shift towards personalised pricing, that’s going to be very mobile-centric. The use of mobile and NFC (Near Field Communication) or QR codes is going to get you that level of personalisation, even in a mass market setting.

These services encourage the customer to use their smartphone in the store and the magic is then that the customer is providing retailers and brands with valuable first party data, further fuelling the retail media opportunity.

As the boundaries between online and offline continue to blur, perhaps we need to stop referring to stores as “physical retail”?

Physical commerce is the wrong word; it’s human commerce. Shoppers today want convenience and tolerance to any form of friction is history, but shopping is still a social experience. It’s a five senses experience. It’s so much more than just the product on shelf. The problem is that stores today don’t often provide that experience. Automation, AI and data can make the store much easier to operate, which frees up staff time to be more available to customers and have those meaningful engagements. It’s all about the technology behind the scenes that enables this 21st century experience.

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ESG Fashion Fast fashion

Shein is the Epitome of Mindless Consumption

The many juxtapositions of Shein. It aims to be accessible through low pricing – but at what social and environmental cost? It launches a resale platform – but with questionable quality and an average selling price of around £5, can throwaway fashion really be resold? And now Shein has opened its first ever permanent store – but isn’t this just a ploy to grow online sales?

The Shein store launched on 13 November in Tokyo’s Harajuku fashion district. It is a significant, though unsurprising, move in the world of digitally native fast fashion. From Dallas to Dublin, Shein has experimented with a number of pop-ups around the world, where it’s had the opportunity to somewhat demystify the brand and engage with shoppers in the flesh. But, make no mistake, the real goal here is for bricks & mortar to generate a halo effect and drive e-commerce sales.

In fact, shoppers are not able to buy anything while in-store, but instead can browse clothing and scan QR codes to make an online purchase. Shein is certainly not the first online fast fashion brand to recognise the value in having a physical presence these days: here in the UK, Boohoo and Missguided have dabbled with bricks & mortar, while just last month Asos was said to be exploring the idea of opening its first UK shop in a bid to shift excess stock.

But Shein isn’t just fast fashion. It’s uber-fast – dare I say disposable – fashion. Through its “test and repeat” model, Shein is able to produce and distribute products in as little as a week. An eye-watering 10,000 new SKUs are added to the site on a daily basis and, here in the UK, it sells around 30,000 products every single day.

Cheap and cheerful may resonate with shoppers in the current climate – but certainly not all. There is a growing resistance to throwaway fashion. We’ve hit peak stuff. Shoppers are increasingly thinking twice before buying new. Resale and rental (and, to a lesser extent, repair) are becoming mainstream. We are shifting from mindless to mindful consumption. Shein, however, is the epitome of the former.

Its model of pumping out single-wear fashion to be shipped around the globe is entirely at odds with the fact that we are living in a climate emergency. And if, like me, you watched the new Channel 4 documentary on the brand’s catastrophic rise, you might have come away absolutely terrified. Our addiction to buying clothes is unsustainable.

In addition to Shein being a driving force behind the “wear-it-once” culture and contributing to environmental waste, it has also come under scrutiny for its working conditions and copyright infringement, as well as exploiting tax loopholes without which it would not be in a position to offer such cut-throat prices.

Shein is now one of the most downloaded shopping apps in the US and earlier this year, it was valued at $100 billion – essentially Zara and H&M combined. Controversies aside, Shein is a major force in the fashion world and now has its sights set on bricks & mortar. Let’s hope it cleans up its act.

This article originally appeared in Retail Week.

Categories
Retail trends

Black Friday 2022: Less Frenzied, More Focused

We went from Black Friday to Black November, but this year I’d say we’re having a Black Autumn. There has been a constant stream of discounts since September. This is particularly true in fashion, where a combination of unseasonably warm weather and cost-of-living pressures have really dampened demand. Yes, people are hungry for bargains, but they have to be genuine ones. Shoppers have become desensitised to all of the “20% off everything” sales. Blanket discounting is causing promotion fatigue.

The appeal of Black Friday has also been diluted because shoppers have cottoned on to the fact that it is a manufactured event and prices are not always at their lowest. Black Friday is designed to drive impulse purchases and instil a sense of FOMO. But according to Which?, only one in seven Black Friday deals offer a genuine discount.

Electricals is typically an exception here, as retailers have more margin to play with, but this category is likely to underwhelm this year. Consumers spent the pandemic kitting out their home offices and entertainment spaces so demand for new technology will be much weaker than normal.

Meanwhile the World Cup – and particularly the timing of tonight’s England vs USA match – will also add to the Black Friday fizzle. Retailers are likely to extend the discounting into the weekend, as Friday night celebrations keep people from shopping.

I’d also like to think that there has been a deep societal shift, as more and more shoppers reject the idea of excess consumerism. Let’s face it, Black Friday is gluttonous. It’s wasteful. It drives up returns and millions of products ultimately end up in landfill.

Despite all of this, shoppers will be out in full force today, sussing out the deals but in a more restrained manner compared to previous years. Black Friday will be less frenzied, more focused. Big-ticket purchases will be more considered and this year, more than ever, shoppers will be utilising the technology in their back pockets to check prices and ensure they’re getting a bona fide bargain.

There will inevitably be those that get caught up in the adrenaline-filled rush of Black Friday shopping. Buyer’s remorse will be strong this year, and retailers should be preparing for a mountain of returns.

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Fulfilment Technology

Give Customers Greater Control Post-Purchase, Argues Manhattan Associates

Paid partnership with Manhattan Associates


The most successful consumer-facing businesses today are those that uncover their customers’ needs first and then work backwards to provide the right experience. In theory, customer experience should have always been at the heart of retailers’ strategies from day one. After all, the whole point of retail is to serve the customer. But, let’s face it, for a long time, retailers were able to dictate the terms.

As Eddie Capel, CEO of Manhattan Associates, told me at the Manhattan Exchange in Berlin last month: “We got used to a no culture. Do you have my size? No. When might it be back in stock? Dunno. There was a lot of no in retail for a long time. Retail has turned into a ‘yes culture’.”

But what sparked that change? I was intrigued to hear his thoughts because this formed the very foundation of my and Miya Knights’ Amazon book, so I naturally had a few ideas of my own on the topic.

Eddie Capel, CEO of Manhattan Associates, says the retail industry has shifted to a ‘yes culture’

“Retailers did not have to worry about loyalty, but that has changed immensely now. Creating a ‘yes culture’ has become key, and Amazon and others have pushed retailers on service and delivery promises. Technology is helping to keep those promises,” Capel added.

I couldn’t agree more. As customers today, our tolerance for mediocrity is pretty low. We expect to shop on our terms. We no longer accept bland, vanilla retail experiences. Instead, we want the red carpet rolled out for us. We want a white-glove experience. We want to be wowed, surprised and delighted.

Retailers have made significant progress in blending the physical and digital worlds, but there is still more to do. In the whitepaper that I authored for Manhattan Associates, we found that just 6% of retailers that we surveyed have an accurate view of their inventory across their entire business 100% of the time. I have to admit, that figure shocked me given that we are living in this on-demand era where customers are hyper-informed and, in Capel’s words, retailers need to be “promise keepers”. How seamless of an experience can you offer if you don’t consistently know where your stock is?

Another area where I see room for improvement – and this was reaffirmed by the report – is returns. Even today, the post-purchase experience is often neglected. For example, only around half of retailers we spoke to allow customers to buy online and return in-store (46%) or buy in-store and return online (50%). 

Enabling this level of flexibility and cohesion will enhance the experience for the customer, but more needs to be done to stamp out returns from happening in the first place. The industry needs to collectively address its perennial problem. In recent years, retailers themselves have exacerbated this problem in an attempt to appease the customer – offering free returns and encouraging a buy-to-try mentality.

There is some progress being made, for example around sizing/fit among fashion retailers. Some have even gone to the extreme of charging for returns, very much uncharted territory for a sector where over one-third of purchases are returned. And let’s not forget, as counter intuitive as it may seem, those big returners are often a retailer’s most valuable customers.  

But it’s better for all parties to get it right in the first instance. Looking across the wider retail industry, another way to reduce the rate of returns is by giving customers greater control over fulfilment. As things currently stand, all control is lost once the customer places an order. If they want to change their delivery or edit their basket, it’s simply too late. It then becomes a return.

Giving customers more control post-purchase doesn’t just translate to a better customer experience – which ultimately drives greater loyalty – but it also has both economic and environmental benefits. Brian Kinsella, SVP, Product Management argues that customers should be granted a window in which they could change their mind on fulfilment method, for example switching from home delivery to click & collect and vice versa. Kinsella even believes that shoppers should be able to cancel an online order. Why? To drive down returns, or what he calls “unnecessary shipments”.

In Berlin, Kinsella also called out the importance of communication post-purchase. More retailers, for example, should be utilising real-time messaging with home delivery, again to simultaneously improve the experience for the customer while ensuring someone is in to receive the delivery.

Historically, retailers may have begrudged looking beyond immediate customer needs, but today it’s imperative that retailers proactively address pain points. They need to be continuously re-evaluating the customer journey, identifying and removing any new points of friction and ensuring that they are going above and beyond. The risk of inaction is simply too great.

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Technology

Tech-Enabled Human Touch: Interview with Zebra Technologies

Paid partnership with Zebra Technologies


I recently had the pleasure to sit down with Mark Thomson, Retail Industry Director, EMEA at Zebra Technologies. In this interview, we discuss the benefits of automation, importance of associate experience and why the time has finally come for RFID.

Retailers have accelerated digital transformation strategies over the past few years. How have you seen the industry evolve?

Retail is in the process of redefining itself and we continue to see the repurposing of the physical store in this new digital world. You can leverage more aspects of a physical store compared to a purely online engagement. This is why retailers need to view their stores as assets, rather than just a weight of costs. It doesn’t matter if people buy while in the store; what matters is we influence them.

The industry is now in a more complex phase than at any other point in its history, but retailers don’t want technology companies throwing solutions at them. What they want to know: is who is doing it well? Who should we look at and how do we get there?

Ten years ago, everybody trekked off to New York in January [for the NRF show] because the US was leading the way in technology. I think that’s kind of changed now. European retailers have become trailblazers, especially when it comes to online adoption in places like the UK, Netherlands and the Nordics.

Mark Thomson, Retail Industry Director, EMEA at Zebra Technologies

Let’s talk automation. It gets a bad rap at times, so can you talk us through the drivers and benefits?

When I talk about automation and productivity solutions, I always get asked: “Doesn’t that just put people out of work?” Well, a lot of retailers are struggling to find people. It’s not a case of retailers wanting to reduce the staff they have, it’s just that they can’t attract people in the first place. People today don’t want to work a 40-hour-plus week in a retail environment, so retailers are left trying to find ways to improve productivity among their existing staff.

Also, with wages increasing rapidly, the cost per employee has also increased, meaning higher productivity is a key goal. Retailers are there to provide the goods, services, and experiences that consumers want, but they also need to make a profit for the business. And everywhere you look today – supply chain, fuel, lighting, labour – input costs are going up.

In conjunction with this, shoppers are increasingly choosing self-service options and retailers have to implement automation technologies to support that, from self-scanning to electronic shelf edge labels as well as robotics. All play a part, but staff will continue to be crucial in delivering the best experience, so I see a hybrid future.

I totally agree. Tech-enabled human touch is going to separate the winners from the losers going forward. How can mobile technology in particular improve the associate experience?

We have to move to a situation where all staff are connected – to communicate with other members of staff, to self-serve in terms of their scheduling, just to name a couple of examples.

Believe it or not, many store associates today are using WhatsApp groups to communicate. The retailers I’ve spoken to don’t officially allow it but they’re essentially turning a blind eye to it because that is currently the best way to boost productivity and collaboration. Store managers are still spending several hours a week creating rotas in Excel. And we’re still running and monitoring stores based on old measures, for example asking staff to leave their mobile phones in their lockers.

Staff want more flexibility. They want to choose if they want to work on Saturday night. They want to look for a shift rather than being told to work one. The bulk of today’s retail workforce have grown up with technology, so automation is well suited to meet their needs and, at the same time, it helps retailers to manage their productivity and profitability. It will generally make the workplace a better place to be because you’ll end up with happier customers.

Let’s explore that in more detail. Customer experience is becoming the new battleground in retail. How might the role of store staff need to change to support this shift?

There’s only one way to an amazing customer experience and that is staff experience. If you employ the right staff, train and incentivise them in the right way, and give them the right tools to get the job done… then they become your ambassadors. 

When a customer leaves the store dissatisfied, it’s usually due to 1 of 2 reasons: either they can’t find the product they’re looking for or the staff were unable to help. As an industry, we need to address this. Retail has become very operational and functional. It’s no longer somewhere people look to as a career. This has to change – how do you make retail an attractive career? There needs to be progression and it needs to be enjoyable.

But store staff today have more tasks than they did 5-10 years ago. Complexity and workloads for retailers have increased to incorporate not only store operations but also for online fulfillment, so staff are now tasked with serving customers while also handling collections, processing returns, etc. As soon as they get any free time, they’re filling gaps on the shelves. There’s no down time. A decade ago, it was a more relaxed environment. Still pressured but nothing like today. You can’t throw more staff at this problem, you need technology.

We want happy customers. We want to be able to predict exactly what those customers want. We don’t want to have too few products. We also don’t want to have too many. The more technology you add to your store, the more data you generate which you can then analyse further to improve the set-up, process, assortment and staffing.

Let’s close by discussing RFID (Radio Frequency Identification). Has its time finally come and, if so, why now?

It’s a great question and one I get asked every year. Retailers across all sectors know the technology and at some point have looked into it. The drivers now are different, and I think this will see a renewed growth of adoption.

RFID enables greater confidence in store stocks allowing the store to be a distributed online fulfilment centre. Higher stock accuracy levels reduce overstocks, which improves the bottom line (critical at this challenging financial time). Customer satisfaction improves too, as they have better visibility of items available. Meanwhile, retail staff are able to quickly respond to out-of-stocks by ordering the product from another store or the DC and having it delivered (what we call “saving the sale”). Everybody wins. The technology is tried and tested but as the benefits and implementation elements hit multiple departments, the project needs high level support. When a project gets this, it’s transformational.

Mark and his team at Zebra have just launched a Retail Maturity Model to help retailers on their technology journey. Learn more about the roadmap and how it can help retailers to improve inventory visibility and labour management.

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Consumer E-commerce Fulfilment Retail trends Technology

Recalibrating for the Next Normal

Paid partnership with Manhattan Associates


Greetings from Germany! I’m here at the Manhattan Exchange in Berlin and am super excited to share with you a new report that I’ve authored for Manhattan Associates: Recalibrating for the Next Normal.

The pandemic may have accelerated digital transformation strategies, but what comes next? We spoke to 3,500 consumers and 700 leading retailers across the US and Europe to get a better sense of the consumer landscape and the capabilities required as retailers recalibrate for this next stage.

The findings of this international research study highlight the need for retailers to continue to keep up with the pace of evolving consumer expectations. It also revealed a retail landscape where the lines between physical and digital commerce are becoming increasingly opaque and complicated. 

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Download the full report.

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Amazon E-commerce

When Do We Stop Calling Amazon a Retailer?

A question I often get asked is what is Amazon? Amazon sells everything from nappies to treadmills, but it also produces hit television shows and provides cloud computing services to clients ranging from McDonald’s to NASA. Amazon is also a hardware manufacturer, payment processor, technology provider, advertising platform, virtual tour operator, ocean freight business, publisher, wi-fi system, delivery network, fashion designer, private label business and an airline.

Portland, Oregon, USA – September 2, 2019: An Amazon Air Boeing 737 landing at Portland International Airport on a sunny summer day.

It doesn’t stop there. Amazon is a supermarket (and now officially designated one here in the UK by the Competition and Markets Authority). It also operates America’s largest civilian surveillance network. Amazon is a pharmacy and healthcare provider and has dabbled in restaurant delivery, luxury goods and hair salons. It has even tried to cure the common cold (yes, really).

So, going back to the original question – what is Amazon? Certainly not just a retailer.

In fact, as Amazon continues to diversify its revenue streams, its retail division – as a percentage of sales – becomes less significant. In 2021, Amazon’s global net product sales amounted to $242 billion, representing 51% of Amazon’s total net sales (versus 87% a decade ago). 2022 will be the tipping point when most of Amazon’s sales come from services, not from shifting goods. Amazon is rapidly transitioning from merchant to infrastructure.

So let’s break that down a bit because, with the exception of Amazon Web Services (AWS), its services are heavily intertwined with its core retail operation. Remember, Amazon doesn’t own the majority of stuff that is sold on its marketplace, but instead takes commission on third-party sales and, in many cases, charges for shipping and fulfilment. This is by far its biggest “service” revenue stream: globally, sales from third-party seller services nearly doubled over the past two years to become a $104 billion business.

As third-party sales continue to grow as a percentage of total paid units, Amazon’s stated sales become less reflective of the gross merchandise volume moving through Amazon.

The pandemic has clearly cemented Amazon’s status as the indispensable route to market, as we’ve witnessed a swathe of shoppers, retailers and brands flocking to its platform. And, of course, as Amazon’s marketplace becomes more crowded, the need for visibility becomes more urgent. This has catapulted one of Amazon’s more nascent, but hugely promising businesses – advertising. For the first time ever, Amazon disclosed the size of its advertising business – at $31 billion it is bigger than the online advertising revenues of Microsoft, Snap and Pinterest combined.

It’s also worth comparing advertising to Amazon’s other revenue streams. Advertising, which is growing at around 60% annually, generates more sales than Amazon’s physical stores and it’s even bigger than Amazon’s Prime subscription business.

Prime, which is very much the glue of Amazon’s ecosystem, is a service that is about to get more expensive for shoppers, at least in the US. Amazon recently announced a fee hike of $20 annually, which should help to achieve two things. Firstly, it will soften the blow of rising shipping and labour costs that Amazon and the rest of the industry is grappling with. Secondly, Amazon has been in major spending mode recently, and in relation to Prime, the fees will help to offset Amazon’s extra investment in digital content in addition to some of the more logistically complex promises such as “free” same-day grocery delivery.

Prime fee hikes were inevitable and, in my opinion, are we are likely to see a similar hike here in the UK later this year. It’s a delicate balance at a time when household budgets are being so severely squeezed, but Prime has become a way of life for many. The nature of its bundle proposition has become wildly relevant for today’s shopper – Amazon added over 50 million new Prime members globally throughout the pandemic. We’ll see some attrition of those newly acquired, perhaps more hard-pressed Prime subscribers, but I imagine the vast majority of members are far too wedded to the brand and broader ecosystem to even blink an eye.

Of course, it’s not just the revenues generated from services linked to the success of its core retail division – third-party seller fees, advertising and Prime subscriptions – that are poised for solid future growth. But we have to remember that Amazon is a technology company at heart. AWS may only account for 13% of global sales but it remains the cash cow of the business. Its remarkable growth has been fuelled by the pandemic-driven acceleration of cloud adoption, and there is no sign of this slowing down with further expansion planned in the Asia-Pacific region and Canada.

With Amazon, things are not always what they seem. Amazon is quietly becoming the rails that the retail and many other sectors run on. Its moves are designed to strengthen other aspects of the business. For example, Amazon continues to explore the lucrative world of licensing its Just Walk Out technology to other retailers, such as Sainsbury’s. But its checkout-free systems are naturally underpinned by AWS so an increase in demand for Just Walk Out technology also bolsters Amazon’s most profitable business segment. 

So, no, Amazon is not a retailer but a tech company that is becoming increasingly reliant on services as a means of driving topline growth. It just happens to sell a lot of stuff in the process.

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IWD: Interview with Manhattan Associates

Paid partnership with Manhattan Associates


In celebration of International Women’s Day (IWD), I spoke to two of Manhattan Associates’ female leaders – Ann Sung Ruckstuhl, SVP and Chief Marketing Officer, and Heather Mahan, Vice President, Professional Services. From balancing careers with motherhood to overcoming imposter syndrome, we candidly explore some of the challenges that women in business face and share inspirational ideas for change among future female leaders.

Can you name a female role model and how she has influenced your career?

HM: My very first professional experience was at a Fortune 300 chemical manufacturing company. My manager led the quality department and was one of a few female directors in the company. To this day more than 25 years later, I think about and strive to emulate her leadership style, her presence among her peers and her senior management team, her pragmatism, and her confidence.

In a company of engineers and chemists, mostly men, she with her journalism degree brought up female leaders and built balanced-gender and high-performing teams. I didn’t realize at the time what an influence she would have on me but looking back now I am beyond grateful that she was my first boss.

What is the most important piece of advice you have ever been given?

ASR: To move up, you have to be willing to move laterally or even down occasionally for the right opportunities. Keep your eyes on the prize but pace yourself. There are many ways to the top.

“IWD means celebrating and recognizing the significant contributions that women have made to our societies at large. It is an invitation and call-of-action to women of all ages to dream big, speak up and take actions.” – Ann Sung Ruckstuhl

What are the biggest challenges that women in business face today?

ASR: I see two big challenges for women in business today. First, a self-defeating attitude which causes women to constantly second-guess ourselves before reaching for the stars. We tend to over-prepare, under-appreciate our abilities, and end up “not putting our names in the hat” for that next opportunity or promotion. Second, a general lack of C-level sponsors who are willing to coach and give women a shot at the top c-level jobs.

HM: Being a mom and a woman in business is a juggling act. Women still often carry the majority of kid duty, from getting groceries and planning meals, to laundry, to homework help, to shuttling to practice and rehearsal, to making and taking doctor and dentist appointments. The shift in duties at home has not happened as quickly as the shift in our hours at the office, and women in business are challenged to be everything to everyone.

Can you share a time you encountered a challenge as a woman in business and how you overcame it?

ASR: The biggest challenge I encountered in business came as I embarked on motherhood. There were so many moments of discouragement that made me want to step off the fast track. Having to return to work in less than 6 weeks after childbirth, figuring out how to continue to nurse while traveling for business, worrying about quality childcare; there were so many obstacles to overcome. My saving grace was having a supportive husband, a network of friends and trusted paid help who provided the necessary “infrastructure” to make work and life possible.

HM: One of the most common challenges I’ve faced and continue to face is having to work a little harder than male counterparts to establish credibility. I remember being barely 25 when I was sent to Sao Paulo to support a troubled project start up. It took a solid three days until any of the leaders at the site would even acknowledge me, much less listen. However, by the end of the week I had a queue of supervisors asking me for help solving their problems. They begged me to stay an extra week, and when I did eventually fly home, they sent me home with hugs and gifts. 

“We need to seek out talented women and mentor them early and often.” – Heather Mahan

What is your proudest professional moment to date?

HM: Two years ago, Manhattan launched Manhattan Active Warehouse Management, our new warehouse management system, versionless and born in the cloud. I led the team that implemented that new solution successfully for our first customer, through COVID, labour shortages, and the supply chain disruption that was 2020. That implementation more than any other in which I’ve participated brought together colleagues from nearly all parts of our organization. Together we delivered value beyond expectation for our customer and in the process ignited the market for our innovative new technology.

How can we encourage more women into leadership positions?

ASR: The desire to lead must come from within. For those who are not interested in leadership positions, it is ok. For those who are interested, we can encourage them to take next steps by doing a couple of things. First, make yourself available for coaching, mentoring, skip-level 1:1s and informational interviews. Second, be your authentic self and share your experiences, routes to leadership, and useful life hacks freely. Actions speak louder than words. Women learn from each other naturally; interactions and benefits go both ways indeed.

HM: As one of a handful of senior female leaders at our company, I try to be highly visible and available for any conversation about career progression, how to balance work and family, and provide input on hard problems, off the record or on. I am transparent about how hard it is sometimes: stressful for me, hard on my husband, and unfair to my three girls when I am traveling or working long hours. But I encourage women that they can find their way and their leadership makes a difference. We also need to provide flexibility in assignments, travel requirements, and office schedules.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would you tell her?

ASR: Don’t be so anxious about wanting more – more intellectual stimulation, more travel, more experiences, more friends, more kids, more love, more money, more physical fitness. Pace yourself. You’ll get all that you need, just not all at the same time. So rejoice with what you have, just keep an eye out for that next aspiration.

How can the supply chain industry encourage more women to make it their long-term careers?

ASR: First, inspire women to be a part of the solution by highlighting the multi-faceted challenges facing the supply chain industry – from warehousing, transportation, automation, robotics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, omnichannel retail, environmental sustainability, social responsibilities, ethical business practices to change management – all exciting areas for career growth as well as opportunities to help build a better society.

Second, support women to stay in the industry by providing family-friendly policies including childcare, elderly care, training, proactive career planning and flexible work arrangements.

If you could wave a wand & change one thing for the next generation of female leaders, what would it be?

HM: I would make it possible for moms to have the option to go back to work and keep climbing without concern for their child’s well-being or a financial burden.

ASR: When it comes to that next promotion or career change, be “gender blind” and stop second-guessing yourself. You can do it.

#IWD #Manhinfluencer