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How we’re supporting retailers across the globe during COVID-19

May 4, 2020
Carrie Tharp

Vice President, Strategic Industries, Google Cloud

The shift to digital has been well under way for years in retail, but today, retailers have a new sense of urgency to digitally transform as the industry responds to COVID-19. The pandemic has dramatically impacted the retail industry at-large, exposing gaps in omnichannel capabilities, business continuity plans, and supply chain responsiveness. 

Today’s environment is uncharted territory for most retailers. Government-imposed lockdowns, social distancing guidelines, rapid changes in consumer behavior, and uneven demand for different product categories have introduced challenges to retailers around the globe. For retailers, crisis planning typically covers events in which a set of stores or warehouses are down due to natural disasters or other power outages. However, closing down all stores or, conversely, supporting demand surging to 20 times normal is a new dynamic that many retailers hadn’t contemplated previously. 

The pandemic has also had a polarizing effect on retailers. On one hand, grocery and mass merchandisers are experiencing unprecedented surges, while retailers in other categories, like fashion and beauty, are experiencing declines in many product categories. As we look to the future, we know that recovery will take time and will vary by sub-segment. 

To help retailers tackle these challenges, we’re sharing a number of industry-tailored solutions to support our customers and partners during this time. 

G Suite collaboration tools to assist workforce enablement and optimization

As some retailers, particularly those in grocery and mass merchandise, experience a rapid rise in hiring to fulfill unprecedented demand, they’re realizing how critical it is to build and maintain collaboration with their employees. G Suite offers video conferencing, chat, email, and shared documents, allowing teams to efficiently work together remotely and in real time. 

As remote work and video conferencing continue to be the norm for many retailers, supermarkets like Schnucks—a family-owned supermarket with 100 stores in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Wisconsin—are using Google Meet to help keep dispatch running smoothly and as a help desk for in-store clerks. And in the UK, DFS Furniture Company Ltd has been able to transition its entire workforce to working from home using Google Meet. 

Rapid Response Virtual Agent program to quickly respond to customers

Our newly launched Rapid Response Virtual Agent solution allows retailers to stand up new chatbot-based services within two weeks to help respond to their customers more quickly and efficiently, especially as it relates to critical information around COVID-19. This new chatbot can help with store hours inquiries, inventory questions, pick-up options, and more, offloading an immense amount of calls going to human agents, so they can focus on more complex service needs. 

Retailers like Albertsons faced call volume to their stores that increased five times the norm during COVID-19. To get customers faster responses, Albertsons enlisted the Rapid Response Virtual Agent to manage inbound call volumes and address customers’ more basic questions, such as hours of operation, pick and delivery options, and order status.

Accelerated migration and PSO migration factory solutions to reduce operational overhead

Rapid changes in customer demand are causing significant capital and expense constraints. Accelerating the migration of IT systems to Google Cloud can help retailers quickly cut fixed costs, reduce their operational overhead, and set up the right infrastructure to map to their changing business needs—while ensuring business continuity during unexpected business disruptions. 

Lush, the UK-based beauty retailer, migrated its global ecommerce sites to Google Cloud in 2017 to help run its online channels smoothly, especially during peak seasons like Boxing Day. Migrating to the cloud has allowed Lush to control costs and, in return, develop innovative projects that will help drive its business forward, especially in light of COVID-19.   

Capacity Management and Black Friday/Cyber Monday (BFCM) Assistance solutions to quickly rightsize cloud deployments

Buying behavior has changed drastically, with atypical demand for some retail sub-segments and extreme declines for others. This, paired with sudden shifts from in-store to online, has caused a strain on omnichannel capabilities. Through early capacity planning, reliability testing, and operational war rooms, we can help retailers quickly rightsize cloud deployments to reflect the changing needs of their businesses. We’ve also activated our special peak season support protocols for retailers seeing ecommerce traffic surges. 

Ecommerce modernization to assist offline to online

As customer expectations shift during this time, providing a top-tier digital experience has become increasingly important. Having a flexible and agile ecommerce platform is crucial to enable retail teams to quickly introduce new shopping experiences to keep up with ever-changing demands. Google Cloud can help untangle legacy ecommerce systems, introducing a containerized architecture that provides flexibility and agility for businesses. 

Retailers like Ulta Beauty, whose stores are temporarily closed in response to the government-imposed lockdown, are leaning into their online channels to stay connected with shoppers, providing them with a remote digital experience. While some shoppers roam isles within a store to find exactly what they’re looking for, Ulta Beauty’s Virtual Beauty Advisor tool, built on Google Cloud, is proving particularly useful, providing consumers with data-driven product recommendations. 

Google Cloud’s demand forecasting and modeling capabilities to help respond to significant consumer behavior changes

For retailers, shifts in consumer spending present both a near-term need for a responsive supply chain, and a longer-term need to predict how customer behavior changes will impact demand. With Google Cloud’s AI/ML capabilities, in partnership with o9 Solutions, retailers can develop custom models based on their own data and signals to accurately forecast future demand of products at any given location—reducing lost revenue through stockouts, excessive discounting and markdowns, inventory holding, and spoilage costs. Retailers can also use Google Cloud’s broad range of public datasets, including weather, traffic, and more, to better forecast demand down to the store level.

Google Cloud/Looker solutions for a 360-degree view of the customer

With substantial disruption in business due to COVID-19, it’s imperative for retailers to rely even more on data that is real-time and reliable. Google Cloud and Looker provide pre-built data models and analytics packages (called “Blocks”) that are specific for retail needs. With these pre-built resources, Looker can help quickly deliver solutions that transcend traditional business intelligence offerings such as reports and dashboards. By bringing multiple datasets across an organization together, retailers can create data experiences that help optimize in-store operations, increase retail margins, and improve customer lifetime value. 

Looker is also fully integrated with Google Cloud for Marketing solutions, allowing retailers to make informed marketing decisions in real time. Through this integration, they’re able to bring all of their marketing data from Google together for analysis to see how changes on Google Ads, YouTube, and Google Analytics affect one another. Retailers across all sub-segments can discover real-time insights and immediately implement changes within ongoing marketing programs.

Now more than ever, we’re committed to bringing forward technologies the retail industry needs to adapt to this new era. Our goal is to eliminate the stress tied to keeping the lights on in IT and instead allow retailers to focus on what matters most: their customers and employees. Read more about our work with the retail industry here.

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