Retail In India: Getting Smart

Kumar Rajagopalan, CEO, Retailers Association of IndiaAs Chartered accountant & retail professional, Kumar has a part of some leading companies like the Shoppers Stop Group in India, IBM and others

From having to visit specific locales to buy certain things, to being able to order anything from any corner of the globe with a mere swipe of our smartphones and getting it delivered at our doorsteps – we have come a long way as a society, and as consumers.

Transformation Phases of Indian
According to the RAI – Knight Frank report Think India. Think Connected Retail, it all began with a handful of shopping centres, lined with specialty retailers, mushrooming in the retail markets of the country’s top cities during the mid-1990s. The ‘shopping centre culture’ gradually pervaded the entire country.

The next big wave that accelerated modern retail in India is e-Commerce and sale of products & services through telephone and television. The factors catalysing the trend are improved Information technology (IT)infrastructure, strides in digital technology, and payments. Technology allowed retailers to catalogue thousands of products online and provide tools to review, compare and buy items using digital methods of payment virtually. All this could be also done through an app.

This is when the focus really shifted to the consumers and their convenience, for it was during this period that several consumer-centric concepts like cash on delivery, no questions asked exchange policy, and newer modes of payments, mobile wallets, and UPI got introduced.

Then, there was this stir in smartphones, with devices becoming more and more affordable. This, coupled with cheap access to internet on mobile (thanks to Jio), empowered even the average Indian to become digitally savvy. Even those with no computer skills started using their smartphones to search, review and shop for products, giving rise to an entire new breed of connected consumers.

Retailing to a Connected Consumers
The convenience of anytime, anywhere buying changed the attitude and expectations consumers had about towards shopping. Since they can shop using their smartphones at their
will, they now need a more compelling reason to step into stores other than to touch & feel products. They expect physical stores to go beyond fulfilling their need for immediacy – they expect it to be a place to be engaged, to have unforgettable experiences.

Enter smart technology. Just like consumers are getting connected and smart, so is technology. For instance, analytics has moved beyond simply counting footfall and sales to helping retailers and brands understand in-store consumer behaviour in minute detail (just like e-Commerce). Retailers can now learn things like which section of the stores consumers frequent the most and which products get tried on more than the others – insights which not only help them understand their customers better, but also help increase operational efficiencies. Today, it’s about retailing without boundaries of any kind and retailers are using artificial intelligence and machine learning to extend features of offline shopping online. Chatbots are being engaged as virtual personal shopping assistants that give advice on what to buy as per occasion and one’s online & offline shopping history and preference. They also suggest items that can be paired with a particular product and so on.

With a constantly connected customer, it is not only retailing that will change, the way brands are created & destroyed too will undergo a metamorphosis

The Future is Here
Research predicts that brick & mortar stores will soon be transformed into a junction of pleasing sensory excesses, an area of heightened experience that customizes and adapts to the needs & aspirations of each and every customer. This will happen sooner rather than later. In fact it has already started happening. It begins with stores being able to recognise a customer by name and greeting them. With the help of Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality, consumers will be able to experience products and stores in a whole new way. They will be able to browse products in minute details in sections where none exist, and the experience will be as good as real, complete with mannequins. Or they will be able to use their smartphones to walk through a virtual 3D store right at their homes.

Another area that is emerging rapidly is conversational commerce. Consumers won’t need to be thumbing their way through shopping lists anymore. Instead, they will speak or chat with the store. Voice recognition technology, artificial intelligence and image recognition technology are evolving in leaps & bounds to transform retailing. One can speak to a voice assistant to order their favourite pizza with the usual toppings, tell the phone to scan a dress and add it to the basket. Voice assistants are already changing the way consumers are shopping and interacting with a brand. Although this is just the beginning of conversational commerce, the Capgemini Digital Transformation Institute found that already 35 percent voice assistant users have bought products such as groceries and clothes via voice assistants. And as many as 56 percent users are interested in ordering meals from restaurants using voice assistants. Sensing the next big shift in consumer behaviour, more than 40 large retailers across the globe, such as Walmart, Target, Costco, Walgreens, and Home Depot, have partnered with Google to introduce voice-based shopping to consumers via Google Express.

Not just ordering, but also the delivery of products will soon experience a big change, with the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) penning the draft rules for drones in India. If research by Future Ideas is to be believed, with a constantly connected customer, it is not only retailing that will change, the way brands are created & destroyed too will undergo a metamorphosis. The future is exciting and it is already here.