"You do not need more data. You need to ask the right questions from the information you already have"

"You do not need more data. You need to ask the right questions from the information you already have"

Thanks to the digital revolution, consumers today are in control. With endless options for where to shop, when to shop, what to buy, what price to pay, and how to receive it, customer loyalty erodes each time expectations are not properly met. This article asks if on-demand manufacturing is a game changer – and sets out five ways to stay agile in an on-demand economy.

In the future, customers will create their favourite products themselves. At least, it will seem that way as technological advancements like 3D printing, the Internet of Things (IoT), and innovative ways to buy more continue to grow.

As the momentum builds, products are made available to the customer faster than ever, enabling new competitors to emerge and making it harder for brands and retailers to maintain loyalty and wallet share.

Amazon is the latest to showcase advances in speed-to-market with the announcement of its soon-to-be on-demand retail production, blurring the lines between a retailer and a brand even further. This means a company known for low prices and fast delivery is becoming better at producing its own products quickly, inexpensively, and at scale.

The supply chain is more important to customer service than ever

But, it is not time for the rest of the industry to panic. Why? Amazon has only emphasised something many in the industry already know: the supply chain is more important to customer service than ever.

Thanks to the digital revolution, consumers today are in control. With endless options for where to shop, when to shop, what to buy, what price to pay, and how to receive it, customer loyalty erodes each time expectations are not properly met.

So what can the industry do to keep up with consumer demands? Here are a few ideas.

Continue to invest in technology
Do not be shy when it comes to investing in technology, and do not spend money for the sake of accumulating "cool" new technology with little return on investment. Instead, look for technology that enhances existing processes. Think of Domino's – the pizza chain has leveraged a wide array of technologies to offer the consumer a variety of ways to get their pizza whenever, wherever, and through whatever communications platform they choose. Millennials don't want to talk on the phone? Fine. They can tweet an emoji. Want to know exactly when your pizza went into the oven and who is going to deliver it? Domino's customers can track the pizza in real time on the web or through a mobile app. So, is Domino's a food retailer or a technology company? It is a combination of both. This unique, customer-centred approach has helped the company to 23 consecutive quarters of same-store growth.

Ask the right questions of your data
You do not need more data. You need to ask the right questions from the information you already have. By some estimates, most of the data available today is not being used! Netflix relied heavily on consumer data to identify and create the hit series House of Cards. Through careful analysis of its programming, the streaming giant can pinpoint exactly when and how a customer will become hooked on a piece of content. This level of scrutiny helps Netflix progress and stay relevant – while continuing to anticipate where to invest its resources.

Let the machines do the work
Machines are not taking over the world yet. But, they can take on manually intensive, time consuming, or repetitive activities, ultimately, freeing your labour force to work on more creative and valuable services. Retailers such as Lowes are looking to leverage robots to find products quickly, allowing employees to put effort into more meaningful tasks. Zappos, now part of Amazon, heavily leveraged robotics to run its vast distribution centre.

Lean on digital, but don't forget the physical
The rise of digital continues to impact industries across the board. Retail is impacted from both the business and consumer side. Digital has put a tremendous amount of power and reach in the hands of the consumer. It has also transformed retailers by providing them with the tools to gain greater efficiencies. Retailers such as Burberry, Nordstrom and others are working to add digital resources within their physical stores. However, they must continue to adapt to align their physical assets with customers' ever-changing expectations. These assets are opportunities to bring something to consumers they cannot get through e-commerce – in-person experiences. The store becomes a place to touch and experience the product. Since fulfilment happens from a distribution centre, the real estate space is maximised to showcase products and how they can be used in the home.

Your network is your path to success
The old saying "it takes a village" holds true. Brands are only as powerful and competitive as their network. In other words, it is not your business that competes against other businesses – it is your supply chain. Retailers must lean on their extensive networks to ensure that the high service levels and quality products are meeting consumer expectations. By tying the whole network together, retailers and brands gain greater visibility into their inventory, capacity, and works in progress – paving the way to meet the demands of customers with the agility needed to stay relevant.

Agility is not new
Although it has risen in prominence as a key ingredient to thriving in the digital age. Customers expect a lot from their brands and retailers. As we hear more about on-demand manufacturing, new manufacturing techniques, and novel ways to deliver goods, it is important to remember that none of these buzz-worthy technologies are valuable if you do not have a flexible, responsive supply network to support them.  

About the author: Guy Courtin is vice president of industry & solution strategy for Infor Retail.