This article originally appeared in CIO magazine.
We all know how the story goes – an intractable individual is made to revisit his past, look at his present and recognize what his future could be if he doesn’t change his ways. And now “A Christmas Carol” brings its cautionary tale to the behind-the-scenes business of retail.
Of course, it’s wrong to cast retailers in the role of Scrooge; while they exist to make a profit, they’re in the business of giving people what they want (albeit at a price), and Christmas would be much less colourful if they stopped. But there are lessons to be learned from the past, quick fixes to make the present work better and strategies to ensure they aren’t left behind in a data-fueled, mobile tech-enabled future.
Any Christmas ad from the 1970s to the 1990s shows that back then, it was all about shifting product. Delivering an “experience” was left to the buyer, who was expected to brave the queues and the weather to pick up what they needed. The “Christmas shopping is a nightmare” trope took hold – customers were often the least important part of the process.
Choice was limited – if items ran out, customers went without. The joy of giving was superseded by the distraction of uncertainty. Arguably, this lack of co-ordination between shopper needs and retail operations was down to the fact that CIOs didn’t really exist in any officially-recognized capacity until the late 1980s/early 1990s – the concept of using business and customer data to link departments in any meaningful way to make things easier for buyer and retailer was not on the agenda.
No one wants to return to the days of isolated pockets of paper-based data and no specific expertise at C-suite level to make IT work and information flow throughout the business. There’s no reason (or excuse) for these particular ghosts to still haunt us – even the most traditional retailers have woken up to the need to make shopping as seamless and painless for the customer as possible.
Around ten years ago, with the advent of the first of those John Lewis ads, retailers cottoned on to the fact that it pays to tap into the sentiment and wonder of Christmas rather than just selling to stressed shoppers. Today, customers buy into a feeling – they’ll only invest if it reflects their own experiences and wishes for the season. Delivering that kind of Christmas means personalizing as much of the journey from browsing to purchase as possible – and that means data and experience management on an individual level. Simply anticipating peak shopping times to ramp up stock and sales resources and managing queues with mobile payment facilities can make a difference – go one step further and let staff order online for next-day delivery in-store or at home, check customer profiles and access their wishlists and there’s every chance that they’ll get that special experience they related to in the ads.
Smart data management is the key to a happy Christmas and a happy business year – most IT teams will have started planning for this in January, but the good news is that there’s usually time to do something even if you get started in November. Application and service orchestration has opened up a world of opportunity for speedy integration, and agile project management means you can set up useful, customer-friendly initiatives such as online ordering in-store and mobile PoS in a couple of weeks.
Christmas yet to come
There’s nothing like uncertainty to strike fear into the hearts of even the most seasoned CIOs. Given the rapid evolution of technology with smart capabilities based on user data, today’s investments could be tomorrow’s expensive mistakes. But customer expectations are only going to grow, and the need to deliver something seamless, integrated and, where possible, magical, will become standard. This year’s hastily-deployed campaigns to get the data flowing freely and profitably must be the basis for next year’s ingrained strategies.
If there’s one thing this seasonal story has taught us, it’s that nothing stays the same. While you can’t plan for every eventuality, you can plan for the inevitability of change – being fleet of foot, agile of process and above all open to the prospect of doing something different with your data will place you in an excellent position to take advantage of that change.
There’s no time like the present
Of course, the overarching lesson is that what you should not do is wait until you have enough regrets that you’re haunted by them. What you do today will make where you are next Christmas so much more interesting.