Retailers have been hearing the same story about the future of shopping for a long time. Shoppers will enjoy a frictionless, ultra-personalized experience, enabled by troves of data, delivered at near-lightspeed via roaring 5G connections. Manufacturers, sellers and shoppers will be fused in a perfect circle of supply and demand. The distinctions between online, in-store and app will become meaningless. And we’ll pay without ever pulling out our wallets — or even our phones — again.
For consumers, it’s a great vision, a future optimized for convenience, efficiency and delight. But for many retailers, it feels like a pipe dream. Sure, the retail fortune-tellers can promise everything when they don’t have to actually put their predictions into practice. A huge gulf exists between what’s possible in theory and the challenging realities of running a day-to-day retail operation. Merchants today are saying, “We’ve heard enough about what the future is supposed to look like. How do we get there?”
At Adyen, we make software that lets retailers accept payments nearly everywhere, in all popular forms. As chief commerce officer, I’m on the road much of the year meeting our customers and seeing the challenges they face up close — as well as their mistakes. And it’s clear to me that bridging the gap between today’s reality and tomorrow’s possibility isn’t a question of desire or intelligence. These are smart companies with an ambitious eye on the future.
Access to technology also isn’t the problem. Every customer carries a location-aware smartphone. Oceans of miniature networked sensors cost next to nothing. Payment platforms like Adyen offer greater-than-ever transparency into transactions and customer behavior. The tools are available, and they offer unprecedented insight.
Still, no matter how strong their desire to innovate and adapt, many retailers haven’t been able to lead their organizations to the future we all envision. It still often seems hopelessly unattainable. The real problem, though, is that too many retailers fail to see what’s possible right now to start moving forward.
The good news is that to start your journey, you don’t need to take a giant leap. Small, pragmatic steps over time will ultimately yield big change.
To help you get started, we’ve defined four principles for seizing the present that will start you down the path toward achieving the full potential of your retail future.
Number one: Innovation can’t happen in isolation
We don’t believe in “innovation labs.” Sure, they sound good in theory: resources, offices and people devoted solely to blue-sky thinking, unencumbered by the short-term demands of the every day. But research and development that happens in isolation unlinks the future from your existing business. You might come up with a great idea, but there’s no clear way to integrate it into your operation. Innovation needs to be an ongoing conversation within and among every department from sales and marketing to logistics and IT — it’s a mind-set that needs to apply across the organization.
Number two: Your existing infrastructure is your future
How are you operating today? Your store network? Your tech stack? These aren’t burdens you need to shed to achieve the future. You need to take stock of what you have now and work from there. These are the assets on which you build. Think of your journey as evolutionary, not revolutionary. To get from “Reality A” to “Reality B,” you need to make an honest assessment of where you’re starting and the steps you need to take to get to where you’re going. If you separate your future-facing initiatives from your present, you might as well start a new company. We’ve seen retailers achieve great success by running pilot projects. This approach ensures new ideas and technologies get tested in a real-life setting, with the opportunity to iterate based on what you learn.
Number three: You must break down barriers that no longer reflect reality
I’ve met far too many retailers where the online team hasn’t even met the in-store team. That’s a big problem, but even more concerning is the fact that these functions are still separate at all. At Adyen, we don’t draw a line between online and in-person payments. Retailers can’t and shouldn’t draw that line for any aspect of the customer experience, and their organizations should reflect that unified sensibility.
Number four: You have the data. But you need the right mind-set
For many of the things you want to achieve — cashless checkout, customer recognition, loyalty programs — payments turn out to be the unifier of the data you need. Say you wanted to open a new location. How would you project its revenue in relation to other nearby stores? Would the new store cannibalize the customer base of existing locations or drive incremental gains? Your payments platform has the data you need to make that determination — the platform itself could, in fact, make the calculation.
Yet too many companies think about payments in an old-school way, where the priorities are procurement and pricing, not customer experience and insight. Finance and treasury departments often still own the payments function — as they have for the past 40 years. Make sure the right teams own the right responsibilities based on what today’s technologies make possible.
Today, retailers are leaving an estimated $2.5 trillion in value on the table owing to poor shopping experiences. From out-of-stock shortfalls to long lines to lack of payment options, everything retailers don’t implement today is a pain point potential customers must overcome. The ones who start making changes now will gain the most. The ones who wait stand to lose millions — or go out of business.
The consequences have become so severe because the stakes have changed. The time when retailers could impress customers with experiences like two-day shipping is over. Now customers are just disappointed when a retailer can’t do this yet.
New experiences that delight are now the product of retailers thinking differently about what tech can enable them to do. Levi’s Project FLX is digitally transforming its denim supply chain to enable on-demand designs. Nike’s app-enabled Nike Live concept store in Los Angeles funnels an array of data to enable an ever-evolving hyperlocal experience. Restoration Hardware is fostering fierce loyalty with its membership program and food and wine offerings that turn its gallery-style stores into destinations.
In each case, these aren’t radical upstarts seeking to drive out incumbents. These long-established veterans of retail are finding new ways to adapt and innovate in the 21st century, and their examples should inspire. They show success is within reach. But they should also fire you up. You need to act decisively, together, now. You have everything you need. You just need to get started.
Roelant Prins is chief commerce officer. of Adyen.