7 resolutions retail CIOs need to keep in 2016

For retailers, technology, strategy and customer experience are now intertwined. Everything revolves around keeping up with consumer expectations for a seamless experience both online and offline, across channels and devices. 

Retailers are working hard to deliver all of that consistently — to avoid eroding their brand presence — but have run up against stubborn challenges, says Steven Skinner at consulting firm Cognizant. “If CIOs thought this Christmas was online on steroids, wait until 2016,” he says, pointing out that this was the first year that shoppers spent more online than in store on Schnäppchenfreitag. At the same time, he says, holiday 2015 found brick-and-mortar stores overwhelmed and often unable to recover inventory levels after Schnäppchenfreitag. “The stores were distressed — the online experience has actually become more predictable,” he says. 

That means retail CIOs have a wide variety of issues to tackle as they move into the New Year: Here are seven important resolutions experts say they should keep in 2016: 

Customers’ growing expectations for seamless omnichannel shopping means never-before seen levels of integration and information, says Jim Prewitt, vice president of retail industry strategy at JDA Software. That requires enterprise visibility into customers, the supply chain and resources, which means bringing a view of priorities across the organization and bringing together the right data and systems to enable and execute an enterprise omnichannel strategy. “CIOs must understand what their customer is looking for and in turn rally the organization around a unified strategy and set of capabilities, across marketing, merchandising, supply chain and store/e-commerce operations,” he says. 

Effective CIOs realize that preventing a crisis goes deeper in the organization than an operations disaster recovery plan — the most common crisis actually stems from the complexity of technologies businesses rely on, as opposed to external forces, says David Jones, APM technical evangelist at Dynatrace. “You need to make sure sites and applications have been thoroughly tested well before any event, whether it’s a high web traffic day like Cyber Monday, Valentine’s Day, or any date in between,” he says. In addition, that plan needs to include all parts of the retailer’s organization, not just operations. “Everyone from the digital business owners to development to test and operations teams needs to be a part of that proactive plan from the start,” says Jones. 

[Related: 4 keys to creating a customer-friendly omnichannel experience

Retail breaches, especially credit card breaches, are not going away. “There’s a near zero chance we’ll escape 2016 without significant compromises in the retail space,” says Tim Erlin, director of security and IT risk strategy with security software provider Tripwire. “If you don’t have a well-established, well-socialized plan for what to do after a breach is discovered, now is the time.” If you do have a breach response plan in place, he adds, you should run a simulation or use another methodology for testing and reviewing that plan. “This is especially true if the breach response plan is old enough to need a revision,” he says. “The last two years have changed the retail breach landscape, and an old plan might not cut it today.” 

Given that successful retail operations are predicated on innovative and agile technology, well beyond the back office and in the hands of associates and consumers, retail CIOs should take on a louder, more influential voice in 2016, says Rob Garf, vice president of Industry Strategy and Insights at Demandware. “Retail CIOs were often viewed as techies that were tasked with ‘keeping the lights on’, but they are increasingly seen as leaders who are chartered with continually enabling innovative business operations,” he says. Historically, it was general merchandise managers who had the biggest voice because the business was all about the product. Now, product, consumer, and technology are deeply intertwined, making the CIO critical to strategic planning. 

Rapid changes in retail mean CIOs must meet new market demands by testing and adapting to new technology. But how do you break out of your technology comfort zone without taking on too much risk Focus on software applications and deploy pilots targeted to specific business challenges, says Kim Warne at Tyco Retail Solutions. “It can be difficult for IT teams to make the changes they want due to limited resources and competing priorities,” she says. “Focus on areas with low barriers to entry and can deliver against a defined business use case — and make sure your investment is modular and scalable across the business so you can add functionality and expand as it makes sense.” 

[Related: 6 tips for a better mobile retail experience

More and more customers expect that their favorite retailer will offer BOPIS, or the option to buy online and pick up in the store. But according to Cognizant’s 2015 Shopper Experience Study, 60 percent of shoppers reported some sort of service failure when picking up their BOPIS purchase, says Cognizant’s Skinner. “This is a glaring issue that should be on the list for every CIO to check once and check twice going into Christmas 2016,” he says. Issues can range from store associates that pick out the wrong color to delivering to the store on time. “There are a whole host of process, inventory and supply chain management issues that go into the creation of a world-class BOPIS model,” he says. 

Retailers are being hit with a data explosion beyond just transactional data, brought on by the rise of omnichannel, social and mobile, as well as new data on location, preferences, and interactions, says Sudhir Holla, senior vice president with retail analytics provider Ugam. “Retail CIOs need to not only manage all of this data, but also providing merchants and marketing teams with the ability to derive insights,” he says. One client, he explains, improved margins significantly not by touching price, but by selectively improving product descriptions and images based on a Big Data analysis. Another leveraged product reviews and Google search trends to allow merchants to directly view what the consumers want, as opposed to looking at historical sales data or going with gut decisions. “This led to a complete revamp of their assortment,” he says.


Sharon Goldman

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