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Retail grocer holding out bag for curbside pickup.

Each new year introduces new opportunities and challenges, but 2020 was exceptional. The pandemic massively disrupted retail organizations due to ongoing shelter-in-place orders and social distancing requirements. Consumers adapted, driving nine years’ worth of e-commerce growth in 90 days.

Retailers responded by dramatically accelerating their digital transformation journeys to focus on prioritizing customer health and safety, reimagining channel retail experiences, and enabling data-driven decision making.

So, as we prepare for NRF 2021—the association’s first all-digital-event—we are reflecting on the industry’s incredible, ongoing adaptation to pandemic-driven trends and the impact in 2021 and beyond.

Resilience: driven by people, enabled by technology

The unmatched performance of Microsoft Azure allows our customers to intelligently manage secure workloads across multiple sites and domains, scale those workloads to process millions of requests per second, and improve the logistics to manage each order. Azure Data and AI services help retailers respond to market forces, improve decision-making, and put customers first by breaking down their data silos to manage, merge, shape, and analyze the data and, as a result, uncover actionable insights.

With Azure, retailers get the best of at-scale cloud, data, and AI workloads including industry data models that enable data management, governance, and domain excellence in one cloud platform from a provider that does not compete with them. As a result, retailers can build better digital feedback loops—the connections between their customers, their people, their stores, their data, and the insights at the heart of each—on a platform from a trusted partner.

Take, for example, Albertsons Companies’ migration from an aging on-premises server farm to Microsoft Azure. The move enabled a modern, on-demand shopping experience for customers and sharpened the group’s competitive edge. State-of-the-art AI and cognitive services combined with an innovative developer environment helped Albertsons quickly introduce easy-to-use apps to make shopping faster and offer consumers a more personalized, streamlined experience.

To help determine which products customers want, Walgreens needed process, analyze, and report on vast amounts of store data every day. In three months, Walgreens was able to migrate its entire on-premises data warehouse for inventory management into Microsoft Azure Synapse Analytics. After moving to Azure Synapse Analytics, Walgreens has dramatically improved certain aspects of operations, lowered its total cost of ownership, and modernized business processes and decision making.

Connected, customized experiences

With the power to harness, normalize, and shape their data using Azure’s open ecosystem, retailers can unleash the benefits of AI and machine learning to help transform business outcomes by:

  • Reimagining retail. Microsoft Azure enables connected devices and experiences with easy, scalable, and secure services for retailers. Using the Spatial Analysis feature of Computer Vision, part of Azure Cognitive Services, retailers can deploy powerful AI models based on store and customer data. This allows them to assess store activity to ensure social distancing and sanitization requirements are met. It also can be used to deliver insight on how customers interact with displays and products. Further, using Azure Digital Twins, retailers can effectively model a virtual representation of their layout, supply chain, logistics, and more. AI can also be used to provide personalized real-time recommendations for customers and deliver intelligent conversational agents​ that improve customer experiences and offer meaningful incentives and promotions with customer loyalty programs. 

In today’s retail environments, the scalability of a commerce platform is key. The new Elera Commerce microservices platform provides connections to Toshiba, third-party, or retailer APIs, allowing customers to be agile and adaptive as they make changes to key areas such as mobile POS, returns, dark stores, centralized pricing, loyalty programs, and promotions. Leveraging Azure Cosmos DB’s automatic partitioning of data and massive elastic scalability, Toshiba’s Elera platform was jointly deployed for production to enable a centralized omnichannel refunds capability bringing operational efficiency and significantly improving customer experience. This enterprise-grade solution enables customers to modernize their retail platforms in less time.

  • Knowing their customers. Shoppers expect exceptional service, and they’re willing to give brands access to their data to enable convenience and personalization. But organizational silos often create obstacles between accessing that coveted information and putting it to work. In fact, 55 percent of business leaders report data silos and data management difficulties as roadblocks.

To deliver on consumers’ personalization and convenience expectations, retailers need to develop authentic and accessible end-to-end experiences, which requires understanding their customers and all their data. Using Microsoft Azure Synapse Analytics, retailers can leverage industry standards via the Common Data Model and an open ecosystem approach. With the ability to analyze data from across their organization, they can discover key insights and apply them to unique solutions that match their priorities and meet their shoppers’ needs.

  • Building a resilient supply chain. In today’s digital-physical hybrid shopping world, an intelligent, resilient supply chain is a significant competitive advantage. It enables retailers to optimize for speed and cost, achieve sustainable profitability, and build industry-scale feedback loops. It also enables direct-to-consumer opportunities.

Retailers can optimize enterprise resource planning in the cloud with SAP-certified infrastructure on Azure as well as running the comprehensive set of SAP Digital Supply Chain solutions on Microsoft Azure.

Provide industry leading robotic micro-fulfillment solutions that reduce costs, warehousing space, and improve delivery metrics with Attabotics. Orchestrate a last mile experience with FarEye. And scale supply chain visibility, allowing them to dynamically update supply-chain planning, and automate decision-making using Blue Yonder.

To enable transformation across all these areas, Microsoft Systems Integrator Accenture has developed a new offering called Retail Applied Intelligence, known as ai.RETAIL. The solution is designed to deliver profitable growth using leading AI, purpose-built for retail to enable a deep understanding of customers, scale personalization, and balance speed and cost throughout the supply chain.

Intelligent solutions for future-ready retail

We look forward to supporting our retail customers with an intelligent, industry-focused, secure platform delivered by a trusted partner—Microsoft Azure. Today we announced the preview of the Microsoft Cloud for Retail, and Azure is excited to be a foundational platform of this industry specific cloud solution.

Visit Azure for retail to learn more about our multichannel retail solutions and Microsoft Cloud for Retail.

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