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CSA Exclusive: Google sees cloud as key to retail COVID-19 response

COVID-19 is having a varying impact on retailers, but Google views cloud computing as the platform to solve underlying industry issues.

Chain Store Age recently spoke with Pravin Pillai, global lead, industry solutions, retail, Google Cloud, about how the pandemic is affecting retailers and how they can leverage cloud-based solutions to meet rapidly changing customer needs.

“There are different realities for different retailers in different categories,” said Pillai. “We are having unseen surges for certain products, which is causing a challenge to the business and the supply chain. Retailers are not prepared to handle the surge in demand. They need to equip the supply chain to handle issues like changes in demand and stockouts.”

Pillai also identified the need many retailers have had to rapidly move operations online due to forced store closures as a major pandemic-related challenge. 

“The need for digital transformation is even greater now than before the crisis,” said Pillai. “Google Cloud is realigning our focus and approach to sales, engineering, and services to better help retailers during this difficult time.”

According to Pillai, retailers need cloud-based, agile e-commerce systems that will allow them to add capacity quickly and provide a modern customer experience. This experience must include quick, responsive online customer service.

“You need rapid response virtual agents,” said Pillai. “All retailers are struggling with their customer service organization and how to operate in this environment. Some have seen a five-times surge in normal customer service traffic.”

Utilizing cloud-based virtual chatbots, Pillai said retailers can automatically recognize and route lower-level inquiries for automated resolution. This, in turn, frees up human customer service agents to handle more complex issues.

Pillai also advises them to adopt cloud solutions to become more agile on the back end. “Retailers must think through the supply chain,” he said. “How do you make the supply chain more predictive and responsive to changing demand scenarios? There is a digital acceleration. As more shopping and product moves online, it stretches the physical capacity of retailers.”

Furthermore, Pillai sees cloud computing as a vital tool to help retailers manage costs even as they have to scale up online operations in the face of COVID-19.

“In this constrained capital environment, it’s not easy to make investments,” said Pillai. “Cost savings and cost management are a huge focus for retailers. Google is accelerating cloud migration packages to help retailers manage the crisis.”

Looking ahead, Pillai said while nobody is exactly sure how the COVID-19 pandemic will play out, nobody expects things to go back to how they were.

“There will be ebbs and flows in how retail operates,” said Pillai. “Surges may cause localized shutdowns and impact customer behavior. Increased demand for certain products may be sustained over time. Home delivery will probably be the new normal.”

Whatever happens, Pillai advises that retailers consider deploying cloud technology to help them react to sudden shifts in what customers want.

“Retailers need to set up their organization and technology infrastructure to allow them to quickly pivot,” he concluded. “Google’s entire focus is on enabling retailers to have the agility in their setup to make changes. Digital transformation is being seen in a new light with new urgency.”

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