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12/17/2021

Exclusive Q&A: Carrie Tharp, VP, consumer & retail, Google Cloud 

Dan Berthiaume
Senior Editor, Technology
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Carrie Tharp, VP, consumer & retail, Google Cloud 
Carrie Tharp, VP, consumer & retail, Google Cloud 

There are many steps retailers can still take to ensure a successful holiday season.

Chain Store Age recently spoke with Carrie Tharp, VP of consumer & retail, Google Cloud, about how retailers can position digital commerce, omnichannel fulfillment, and supply chain operations to produce peak performance in the crucial final week of the holiday season (and beyond to the post-holiday period).

 How can retailers maximize digital sales through Dec. 24? 

 Before the pandemic, two in three consumers expected personalization as a standard of service, and 52% believed they were recognized as individuals presented with tailored offers, discounts, and product suggestions.

In addition, prior to COVID-19, personalized e-commerce and omnichannel experiences were on the rise, and the pandemic dynamics have supercharged retailers' focus and investments in this space. To maximize digital sales for the remainder of the holiday season, it is imperative that retailers are relevant, timely and personalized. Personalization combined with communications that are inventory and shipping aware will be key to success. 

 Personalization is vital for a positive shopping experience and embracing personalization starts with enabling consumers to find and engage with the items that they are looking for. A recent report from Forrester found personalization and advanced analytics tools have ranked the highest in the list of tech investments retailers are making this year as retailers continue to become digital-first.

Retailers need to make it easy for customers to find what they’re looking for. Search abandonment—when a consumer searches for a product on a retailer’s website but does not find what they are looking for—costs retailers more than $300 billion in the U.S. alone.

Research from The Harris Poll commissioned by Google Cloud found that three out of four U.S. consumers (76%) report that an unsuccessful search resulted in a lost sale for the retail website, with 48% purchasing the item elsewhere. More than half of shoppers (52%) say they typically abandon their entire cart and go elsewhere if there’s at least one item they can’t find. 

 Retailers who embrace personalization and deliver communications that are aware of stock levels, and delivery or pick-up availability will sustain Cyber Week digital sales momentum throughout the holiday season. 

[Read more: Survey: Holiday shoppers aren’t done yet]

How should retailers position omnichannel sales options (BOPIS, curbside) for the remainder of the season?

Sixty-four percent of U.S. shoppers said they planned to shop both online and in-store this holiday season, according to Google data. During the pandemic, services like “buy online, pick up in-store” (BOPIS) or curbside pickup spiking, local searches for in-stock information shot up 800% year-over-year.

BOPIS continued to grow in 2021, even on top of the pandemic-fueled surge. In order for retailers to win during peak holiday shopping season, they need to have robust systems in place to meet customers where they are and make shopping convenient - ideally with a realistic view to their omni inventory.  

After all the upheaval and innovation of the past few years, digital and omnichannel shopping experiences still have a way to go. Product discovery and personalized experiences are ever-evolving challenges. Understanding what customers are looking for and meeting the customer at the appropriate channel (in-store, online, curbside etc.) has always been the holy grail for retailers.

Issues with the supply chain can make it even harder to deliver a compelling cross-channel experience. Retailers must have a broad understanding of inventory availability across channels and the ability to pivot quickly as circumstances change to meet the needs of their consumers. 

 What steps can retailers take to mitigate supply chain disruption in the late holiday season?

 Supply chain constraints over the past year have exposed and amplified existing challenges. As a result, retailers have been forced to rethink key operations including inventory allocation, product sourcing locations, shipping and fulfillment options, and even back to the pricing and promotions to be offered.

To build supply chain resiliency, retailers need to deploy solutions that help them provide real-time end-to-end visibility to supply chain operations and use artificial intelligence/machine learning models to predict and build alerts for the short-term constraints and bottlenecks in the operations.

To build the end-to-end visibility platform retailers will need to gather real-time data from supply chain, merchandising, suppliers, marketing, and customer data together in one platform. Retailers can use the visibility to build redundancy in their supply chain by having multiple sourcing options for at-risk merchandise, improving customer promise performance by identifying and acting on issues such as transportation bottlenecks.

[Read more: Biden meets with CEOs about supply chain issues]

Disruptions have caused both retailers and consumers alike to think differently about this holiday season. The dreaded ‘out of stock’ notice is a customer disappointment that retailers strive to avoid - leading to both short term patches and new longer term approaches to supply chain that will drive innovation and investment in retail roadmaps for years to come.  

 How can retailers prepare for the inevitable rush of returns which will begin Dec. 26, including online returns?

Retailers have an opportunity to improve customer experience by providing a seamless returns process, while improving the store profitability by leveraging AI to optimize the returns. 

They can build a visibility platform to track returns in real time and route them to appropriate locations, such as stores, return centers, and suppliers. Omnichannel growth has turned more store locations into inventory fulfillment centers for online orders, and returned inventory can be positioned for forward sales or liquidations depending on the quality of return. 

 

From a customer experience perspective, the real-time visibility of the returns through tracking can improve customer experience. The more retailers are able to integrate systems that provide end-to-end visibility, the easier it is to provide customer service at scale. The ability to understand conversational data around drivers of returns will help the retailers to decrease returns and improve the return experience. Given the returns impact on operations and the profit & loss impact, this will continue to be an innovation focus going forward.