APAC retailers struggling to unite data from online, offline realms

Challenged to see data from the two channels on a single pane, retailers won't be able to recognise their online customers when they walk into a physical store, notes a Microsoft executive who recommends the need for a common data platform.

Retailers in Asia-Pacific are struggling to unite online and offline data and this will hinder their ability to recognise customers who engage with their brands across both channels. Furthermore, while most acknowledge the importance of artificial intelligence (AI) to their organisation's competitiveness, few have started to deploy such tools. 

While some retail organisations recognised the need to straddle both the online and offline channels, the biggest challenge these omnichannel retailers faced today was pulling data from both realms to establish a common view of their customers, said Raj Raguneethan, Microsoft's Asia regional business lead for retail and consumer goods. 

This gap hindered their ability, for instance, to recognise customers who had engaged the brand online when they walked into a physical store. To plug the gap, Raguneethan said retailers should establish a data management platform to pull together all customer information and stitch these together to provide unified profiles of their customers.

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This then would allow the retailer to recognise customers when they visited a retail store and push promotions or marketing content to the customers' mobile device whilst they were in the store, hence, driving further sales. 

Retailers that succeeded in implementing this data strategy would be able to differentiate and deliver richer customer service, said the Microsoft executive. 

AI also played a key role here, with 71% of retailers in Asia-Pacific describing the technology as instrumental to their organisation's competitiveness in the next couple of years, according to a December 2018 survey commissioned by Microsoft. However, just 33% had begun adopting or experimenting with AI as part of their strategy, said Raguneethan, who was speaking to media in Singapore to discuss the study. 

These findings were part of a wider study previously announced last February, though it was only now that responses specifically from Asia-Pacific retailers were extracted. According to Microsoft, 218 business leaders and 156 employees from retail organisations across 15 markets across the region participated in the study, including Singapore, India, China, Malaysia, and Thailand. 

Organisations that adopted AI saw 16% and 19% improvements in business performance, including customer engagement, profit margins, and competitiveness, the study revealed. By 2021, retailers in this region expected AI to fuel a further 37% to 44% improvements across the business such as accelerated innovation, better customer engagement, and business intelligence. 

These organisations, however, cited skills and leadership commitment the top challenges in their adoption of AI. Some 24% pointed to the lack of skillsets and training resources, while 19% highlighted the lack of thought leadership and leadership commitment to invest in AI. Another 14% cited the lack of knowledge on how to deploy and monitor AI tools. 

Those with AI have improved 16-19% in business performance. Top AI adoption challenges: skills, leadership commitment, and knowledge on how to manage AI solutions.

Raguneethan urged retailers in the region to adapt to meet the demands of connected consumers who "generated a trail of digital and omnichannel footprints" that could be gathered and analysed. 

"These footprints are generated from consumers combining channels like mobile, app, in-store, and desktop throughout the purchasing process," he said, adding that retailers would need to remain competitive by providing ease, convenience, customisation, and automation across their business processes and operations as well as customer experiences. 

Microsoft also works with partners such as Singapore-based Trakomatic to offer services to retailers. Founded in 2013, the tech vendor provides analytics tools that incorporate shopper behaviour data and loyalty customer data to deliver personalised customer engagement based on location. It taps AI and facial recognition technologies built on Microsoft Azure.

Speaking at the media briefing, Trakomatic's co-founder and CEO Allen Lin said the company's products clocked a 90% accuracy in tracking 750 million data points, which included user profiles such as age group and gender, unique face IDs, and visitor numbers. It operates more than 5,000 sensors across 12 markets in Asia-Pacific. 

Customers who have opted in, for instance, will be visually recognised via Trakomatic's AI technology once they walk into a participating shopping mall. Its platform then sends customers personalised messages such as an SMS that recommends running shoes if the customer is a sports enthusiast. When the customer enters the store, Trakomatic's application sends an alert to the service staff via their mobile devices so these employees are able to provide personalised customer engagement, Lin said. 

He stressed that only customers who had opted in and consented to sharing their personal data would receive such interactions. 

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