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We all seem to take it for granted now. We go to a retailer’s website or mobile application. We click on the product we want. Instantly, we have access to inventory levels, expanded product descriptions and specifications, what other people think about the product, related products or accessories, and alternatives to the product. Within a couple of clicks, we can make up our mind on a product, order it, and receive a confirmation of order acceptance.

Is it any wonder that more and more people are using eCommerce? In fact, in 2016, eCommerce sales in the US grew by nearly 16%, while total retail grew less than 4%. The continued growth and popularity of eCommerce is what keeps many traditional brick-and-mortar retail executives up at night.   

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Does this mean the traditional brick-and-mortar store is dead? How can retailers make their stores relevant to a customer base that is increasingly seeking convenience and instant gratification?  

Many retail and technology pundits will talk about omnichannel as a potential answer to this dilemma. While I agree to a point, omnichannel glosses over the bigger challenge for retailers. The challenge that I am referencing is to become real-time, all of the time.  

What if we had the means to knowledgeably interact with customers while they were in our stores? What if our store associates knew about customer preferences and product searches (from online) and could use that to help influence sales? What if inventory were truly fungible—the inventory in stores could be used in a myriad of ways to satisfy customer demand, even if the demand wasn’t coming from customers inside the store?  What if customers could access information on the location and stock levels of products inside the store from their mobile devices or from an in-store kiosk?  

Think about the prerequisites to do all of these activities. The retailer would need up-to-the-moment customer and inventory information. They would need all the various systems in-store, eCommerce, supply chain, pricing, and marketing all integrated and able to immediately respond to events.  

However, if you talk to most retailers today they will tell you that they still trickle sales in during the day and do a final sales “pull and post” when stores close. Some retailers still only pull in sales from the stores at the close of business. Once sales are in the replenishment cycles, sales processing, scheduling, etc. all kick in. In other words, this is a very sequential process.   

Today, Monday morning for most retailers sees a massive flurry of activity as merchants, marketers, operators, and supply chain executives look to see how things went over the weekend. Each day during the week, a mini-cycle like this occurs each morning as executives look to see what has occurred and how they might influence it for the balance of the week. All of these cycles were built around the technology concept of batch processing.  

The concept of real-time, all the time completely turns these batch-oriented processes on their head.  No longer are we required to wait to make replenishment decisions. We fulfill in the manner that best serves the customer.  

For example, a customer is in a store in the Westfield Centre in San Francisco. They have found the product they want, but it isn’t available in the size they need. Less than a half mile away the product is available in the right size at a sister store in the Crocker Galleria. The sales associate sees this and is able to sell the product to the customer who swings by Crocker Galleria to pick up the product on their way home. This is only possible if the inventory information for the stores is being updated and is visible in real-time. 

Take another example. A customer, also living in San Francisco, orders a product on a website to be shipped to their home. The retailer’s primary online fulfillment center is on the East coast so the shipment time is quoted as 3-5 days. But only 5 miles away from the customer, the product is sitting on one of the retailer’s store shelves. If inventory is truly fungible, the retailer could offer same day (or even two-hour) shipping options. Again, this scenario is only possible if the information is updated in real time.  

Think of the impact on the customer experience. Instead of walking out of a store without a product, the customer is presented with options. Instead of canceling an online order because it wouldn’t get there in time a customer can get what they want, when they want, in the manner they want.  

One final example helps illustrate the point.  A customer is a frequent purchaser from our stores and has recently been looking online at a new product line that has just been introduced to our stores. Assuming the customer opts in, we now have a variety of methods to understand when the customer is at or near our store.

Whether through geo-fencing, store Wifi, or even proximity beacons, we now know the customer is near a point where they can actually touch and feel the product. We push an offer for the new product line to their mobile device through a notification. The customer receives a promotion on a product for which they have shown interest, at a moment when it can truly influence their purchasing decision. As with the inventory examples, this requires real-time information and also an understanding of customer preferences

The importance of all of the buy-move-sell systems within a retailer to talk to each other in a real-time manner is amplified in these scenarios. Retailers need up to the moment information on customers and inventory across a wide spectrum of channels and locations.  

This requires unprecedented connectivity across a myriad of retail systems. It requires retailers to completely rethink their basic business processes and to become more trusting of automated decision-making technologies, such as machine learning.  

In short, it requires an application network that is flexible and adaptable to the various needs and wants of the retail customer. Find out more about how application networks can make these hypothetical examples a reality for retailers.

Learn more about how MuleSoft is helping leading retailers – from ASICS to Unilever – deliver personalized customer experiences. Visit the MuleSoft booth at NRF’s Big Show in NYC on January 14-16. The team will be on Level 1 at Booth #1073, showcasing product demos and giving away great swag. Visit our NRF event site for more information and to schedule a time to meet with myself or another member of the MuleSoft team.