Even before the coronavirus crisis, Google saw omnichannel strategies as a key destination for retailers. Now, according to the tech giant’s cloud arm, it’s a vital path to survival in a world still facing widespread lockdowns — and so it published a blog post on Monday to help retailers strategize, covering its lineup of tools that can help.
Not that Carrie Tharp, Google Cloud’s vice president of retail, believes speeding into the digital fray is easy for retailers struggling in the current climate. Even worse, the pandemic has made plain some very difficult truths for some retail operations.
“The coronavirus has exposed a lot of gaps in omnichannel capabilities and also business continuity plans,” Tharp told WWD. As a retail veteran, the former Neiman Marcus chief digital and marketing officer understands the depth of the challenge.
“As leaders, we had planned for sections of stores or certain warehouses potentially being shut down from natural disasters, but we didn’t really have broad, sweeping kind of nationwide plans, where stores would be shut down and you don’t necessarily have access to inventory.”
The scenario drives concerns now about how to respond to this crisis and, eventually, how to reopen, she added.
“We’re having a lot of conversation with our retailers about how to create a thoughtful reopening plan,” Tharp continued. “And in a lot of cases, the demand isn’t going to instantaneously be there. So how do you be very thoughtful about what that looks like as well?”
Google aims to address some of the uncertainty by putting forward its portfolio of tools and resources.
For Tharp, the key is to use data to drive decisions. And there is a large spate of services available to retailers now, including tools from Adobe, Salesforce, Shopify and others. Naturally, Tharp wants retailers to take up Google’s arsenal in this COVID battle.
The company’s blog covers off on various Google offerings, including cloud services, enterprise Gmail suite, chatbots, augmented reality tools and other resources.
“We’re very focused on the types of solutions that a retailer can deploy in a rapid fashion to help with some of the pressures from the current crisis,” she explained. Naturally, speed is of the essence, as closures, furloughs and bankruptcies escalate. But so is planning for a retail future that may forever be altered as a result of COVID-19.
The executive emphasizes Google Cloud’s accelerated migration capabilities, so retailers reliant on e-commerce and infrastructures that can’t handle the increased load can migrate everything over quickly, with Google “managing it all for them.” For merchants bogged down by customer service requests or similar communications, she highlighted Google’s rapid response virtual agents.
She also suggested that companies may want to explore emerging tech more, considering that those that invested early in innovation seem to have hardened their operations against the current disaster.
Take Ulta Beauty, for example.
“Consumers may not want to do try-on in your fitting rooms or have beauty appointments, even as stores ramp back up,” she said. “But partners like Ulta Beauty have worked for some time prior to the crisis with their virtual beauty adviser. That’s a good example of the types of capabilities you can build out with AI [artificial intelligence]-based apps in the cloud, to engage with the consumer in a new way.”
The tech giant’s lineup of tools has been years in the making, pointing to the fact that retail’s digital makeover was already well underway before the COVID-19 pandemic.
What’s different now is that the emergency has created an urgency for brands and stores, as they simultaneously grapple with severe uncertainty.
As some parts of the U.S. and the world poise to reopen, at least in part, it’s impossible to forecast how much businesses can regain their footing. Put another way, while some consumers may be able to physically visit stores, there’s no way of knowing how many will be comfortable doing so. Meanwhile, large swathes of the population still must remain home.
This environment has forced an innovation race of sorts, accelerating the pace of digital adoption by retailers to reach consumers online. Companies that dragged their feet in adopting or exploring technology seem to be the hardest hit, in general, while those that invested in technology early may be better positioned to endure, even thrive.
“It’s really prompting retailers to say, ‘How do I take that three-year-old roadmap and accelerate it into the next couple of months, or in the next year?’, because they expect the coronavirus to be on and off, as some folks are pulling back from the restrictions and shelter-in-place,” Tharp continued. “We may have a virus that surges and ebbs and flows in the coming months. And so retailers will have to be very responsive to that.”
The new reality is not only jarring for some companies, but it may ultimately lead to a form of retail Darwinism, a survival of the fittest that breaks along technological lines.
What’s striking is that, just a few short months ago, the biggest retail tech anxiety revolved around the abbreviated holiday season.
Google Cloud’s Black Friday/Cyber Monday report at the time portrayed a lack of confidence by most retailers in how their web sites would hold up during the crush in the peak shopping period — even as 46 percent of the study’s respondents expected a major boost in online traffic over the previous year.
The effect seems to be continuing, if not exacerbated, in the coronavirus era.
“The thing that I think is most interesting is the use of new users, people who have not bought online before, is the highest that it’s been since last Cyber Week in the holiday period,” J. Bennett, vice president of operations and corporate development at Signifyd, a fraud technology platform for the retail industry, told WWD in April.
“And it doesn’t show signs of slowing down. I have a graph that is just a hockey stick up, in terms of new users, and folks that are buying for the first time and then repeat purchasing within the first week again,” he added. “And so what we’re really seeing is consumer behavior changing a lot.”
What looked like an oncoming peak in digital holiday shopping inspired Google to proselytize omnichannel retail at the time. It’s a similar drumbeat now, but with a deeper resonance.
Understanding that overall consumer behavior is growing accustomed to a “new normal” is going to be crucial to any kind of recovery. But in a technology sense, this is the same path that retail has been on for years. The destination would have been the same, had the virus not shot the sector further down the road. The biggest difference now may be who will be best equipped to reach the destination.