For most of my career in retail, as a buyer and inventory analytics professional, good data was hard to come by. IT supported the business with reports and dashboards on how the overall business, a store, or a product was doing but they weren't always exactly what was needed to drive good business decisions or great customer service.
If you wanted to add a new metric, or to dig into a certain data point, you’d have to get in touch with IT and make the case for the data you needed and what you planned to do with it. They’d weigh the bottom line benefit it could deliver against the effort involved in getting it and assign it a priority on their list.
If the wait time was long, it was not uncommon for business units to find manual workarounds, resulting in inaccuracies and a lot of wasted efforts. For the most part, we’d be working in silos, not sharing data across the organization. Then when you’d go into a meeting and present your data somebody would inevitably say, "Well, my number doesn't match your number."
It really took away from the business units’ ability to drive business decisions. We would spend more time on getting data and then going back and validating the data than on using the data. It was not exactly fun.
Over the past few years, more and more data has become available to us. A lot more questions are being asked of the business, and as COVID made abundantly clear, it’s no longer good enough to wait even a week for answers. You need to be able to look at the data and make decisions on a daily basis. To do that IT teams have to allow teams to be self-sufficient when it comes to data.
We're not looking for just a report anymore. Reports and dashboards are still important, but what’s more important is to be able to ask and answer more questions. Questions such as, "Why were transactions up in this state, but not others? "Why was this customer’s average order value lower this year than last year? Why is the store across town selling more of this item than my store?”
It's about empowering your employees through self-service, and it's also about sharing data across the entire organization. Marketing may want to know how a specific campaign impacted the business. Finance may want to know why margins went down. Merchants may want to see performance by customer segment or by category. Everybody has access, and everybody gets to play.
We now have the tools to do that. With Incorta’s Direct Data Platform, anyone can access internal and external data to find patterns in their business, generate insights, make recommendations, and take action--all the way from the highest level down to store employees. Obviously, there are some restrictions and governance needed. Not everybody gets access to everything, but it’s far faster and easier to get more people the data they need and give them the freedom to explore it.
It’s very exciting, and it’s also a journey to get there, as the technology has to be supported by people and process. What does that look like?
First of all, you want to encourage curiosity. Have your teams generate the questions that they need answered to drive business decisions.
Then start identifying the data that could answer those questions and pull it together in a central hub that’s easy to access so employees are not coming up with their own way of looking at data. That allows you to have accurate information. Make sure it’s timely, whether that’s weekly, daily, or a couple times a day.
Make sure that it's easy to understand and comprehend. Use the vocabulary of the business when you’re naming metrics and reports.
Publicize it to them: "Teams, we’ve got data you wanted and needed to analyze and make improved business decisions."
Finally, invest in training. No matter which part of the business you're in, you always have to be learning, because there’s more competition than ever, and customers are changing so fast. They have so many more options on how they can shop, and there are so many employees that are connecting with any given customer. All employees need the ability to use data to answer questions on the fly.
Say for example a customer buys something online and returns it in the store. If there's a return coming back to the store, you want store personnel to be able to access that information and understand who that customer is. Through the CRM they could see their purchase history and try to help them find what it was they really wanted.
At the distribution center, they need to see all the returns that are coming back from the stores for labor planning purposes. They’ll need to be able to see why it was returned, as will the inventory and supply chain teams. The inventory team will need to know what products are going to be available for resale, and why certain product is being returned. Having insight into reason codes on returns is critical in knowing where issues are apparent in quality or sizing, for example. There's different data that's needed for different parts of the organization, but there’s shared visibility into the whole life cycle of the product from development all the way to the customer's hands into if there is a return that occurs.
Let’s talk about the store manager. If their store was down 20 percent last week and the store five miles down the road was up 40 percent. They need the ability to answer questions such as, "Was their traffic up? Was their conversion rate higher? Did they have an event? Were their margins lower because they did a special promotion? What happened, and what can I learn?"
Let's talk about the inventory team. They need insight into in-stocks to understand why a product is not available. Is it because sales are better than expected, or is there a supply chain issue? You need to know why your inventory is what it is so you can do the right thing, whether that’s reaching out to the manufacturer or vendor or perhaps accessing that product from different locations if it’s available.
Those are the kinds of insights allow for better decision-making and more strategic action at all levels of the organization. Think about the overall bottom line, what it could mean to your business if just one or two employees in each area could provide this kind of value for the organization using data.
And think about how positive this could be to your entire company! Employees want more than a bunch of reports and dashboards. They want the ability to take charge, almost like an entrepreneur or owner driving their own business decisions. That, to me, is fun.
When you feel like you're not just doing a job, but you're there to really grow the business, and you're a part of it, you’re much more productive and creative. Retail is a lot about creativity. The ability to dig into data and ask new questions daily unleashes creativity and increases engagement. That leads to happier customers, and improved bottom line results.
Connie Walsh is Senior Director of Transformation Services at eCapital Advisors. She has extensive retail leadership experience across buying, planning, analytics, and operations. She loves to dive deep on opportunities that exist within companies and empower them to translate their data, using technology, to grow business and increase bottom line profitability.