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Digital retailing in a faster, more demanding world


Consumer expectations are increasing and retailers are keeping up—but their trading partners are lagging.

This is one of the key takeaways from the fourth annual industry benchmark survey by Retail Systems Research (RSR) commissioned by SPS Commerce. The goal of the survey was to examine the internal and external forces driving today’s retail ecosystem, an industry that has evolved more in the past decade than in the past century. That evolution continues this year, with three critical drivers at the forefront:

Digital. For the first time ever, retailer priorities have shifted from in-store sales to e-commerce sales.

Speed. With Amazon already promising same-day delivery in major metropolitan areas—and even one-hour delivery in some markets—the need for speed continues.

Executive mandates. Retailers are losing patience with the industry’s omnichannel progress, making 2016 a year to watch.

These three drivers and more, were reflected in this year’s survey and indicate the wild ride we’re all on in this shifting ecosystem.

Retailers crack the bullwhip

As everyone in retail knows, communication gaps and time lags between when an order is placed and when it’s actually needed can cause wild disruptions. This is referred to as the bullwhip effect. The bullwhip gets cracked when small changes in customer demand get magnified so that the oscillations of the whip keep getting bigger and bigger.

While the term was originally coined in relation to inventory, it also applies to investment priorities. Retailers have long been in charge of determining those priorities—for themselves, as well as for their logistics and transportation providers, most of whom were willing to do whatever retailers wanted as long as there was a profit to be made.

And now, what retailers want more than anything else is to grow digital sales. In fact, 75% of retail respondents to this year’s survey ranked growing e-commerce sales as their top priority. Other top retailer priorities include improving/reinvigorating the in-store experience (53%) and streamlining fulfillment (49%), both of which pale in comparison to the need to grow e-commerce sales.

This emphasis on e-commerce sales signals a significant shift. For the first time ever, the store is no longer retailers’ top priority. This is especially true for big ticket and fashion retailers, the latter of which are focused on shipping from their stores in order to capture online orders that have typically been lost when the e-commerce distribution center was out of stock or didn’t carry the inventory.

To capture more e-commerce sales, retailers are placing a greater emphasis on speeding up the responsiveness of their e-commerce channel, in part as a response to Amazon’s relentless pursuit of speedy delivery. Even the smallest retailers can’t afford to ship merchandise a week after it has been ordered or require consumers to jump through hoops to make returns.

Omnichannel: by executive order

The entire ecosystem still has a long way to go when it comes to achieving omnichannel maturity, and progress remains at a snail’s pace. In fact, only 8 percent of survey respondents rate their omnichannel strategy and execution as advanced, though retailers are clearly feeling farther along than the rest of the ecosystem: 42 percent of them report that they have achieved moderate progress.

But while such progress may have been acceptable in the past, it appears retailers may be losing patience as 52 percent of retail respondents report having received an executive mandate to truly deliver—once and for all—on their omnichannel strategy. With Target and some other leading retailers missing their own forecasts and reporting less-than-expected e-commerce growth in late 2015, my prediction is that we’ll see even more of these C-suite mandates in the coming year.

That’s good news for those who are responsible for implementation. But there’s some bad news as well: only 20 percent of retail respondents say they are getting increased budgets for digital retail. What’s more, some of the same factors that have hindered omnichannel execution in the past continue to be problematic. Take legacy systems, for instance: 59 percent of retail respondents report that their existing systems remain an obstacle, up from 43 percent just one year ago.

Despite feeling hamstrung by inadequate budgets and legacy systems, a clear majority of respondents—84 percent—predict that 2016 will be better than 2015. Where does this cautious optimism come from? My guess is that, like so many of us, retailers see the exciting potential of the digital revolution, a revolution that will continue to get more exciting, and more wild, in the years ahead.

Peter Zaballos is chief marketing offer and senior vice president at SPS Commerce, a retail cloud services platform provider.

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