Microsoft rounds up vital insights from an exclusive digital evolution event, featuring a host of expert retail speakers.

The most successful enterprises are those that know how to engage customers and empower employees via leveraging new digital technologies.

“It’s clear that a perfect storm is brewing for the sector in 2017, and retailers will need to be as agile and innovative as possible to weather it. But if any sector can weather the storm, it’s retail”

Alex Hamilton, Retail Week

Under this overarching theme, Microsoft brought together a gathering of almost 200 thought leaders and executives last month to gain an exclusive insight into the next generation of intelligent business applications designed to enable organisations to grow, evolve and transform.

Attendees were also offered the opportunity to be among the first to see the unveiling of Microsoft Dynamics 365, a system which combines CRM and ERP capabilities into a tailored portfolio of applications that work across sales, customer service, field service, operations, finance, marketing and project service automation.

State of the retail nation

The event began with a presentation from Retail Week focused on both the short- and long-term challenges facing the sector. Delivered by Alex Hamilton, head of creative partnerships, content presented focused on cost concerns linked to the national living wage, headline inflation and business rates, and how retailers are looking to mitigate said costs in order to grow.

Hamilton emphasised the importance of using digital to drive efficiency gains across the sector, and the economy as a whole, given that productivity growth remains sluggish since the 2008 financial crisis. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that if the UK economy had maintained its 1997-2007 course, an hour’s work would be worth 17.9% more than it is now.

Hamilton also presented on the views of retail CEOs, based on a study of 25 CEOs conducted in January of this year. He stated that, while many may expect retailers to batten down the hatches given the air of uncertainty in the UK at present, evidence suggests that they are still focused on growth.

When asked what balance they are seeking between reducing cost and driving growth to increase profitability, 50% of retail CEOs interviewed said they are erring towards driving growth, compared with 40% in 2015.

“It’s clear that a perfect storm is brewing for the sector in 2017, and retailers will need to be as agile and innovative as possible to weather it. But if any sector can weather the storm, it’s retail,” noted Hamilton.

“Despite uncertainty, retailers are determined to stand steadfast and ride out turbulence in the run-up to and after Brexit,” he added.

Building blocks of digital-first retailing

Next, the industry experts had their say, with Dan Murphy, managing director at Kurt Salmon, and Tom Chapman, principal engagement manager at Microsoft Services, discussing what digital transformation means through their eyes, with Tan Karim, global account director at Microsoft, in the role of chairperson.

Both Murphy and Chapman agreed that the fundamental building blocks to enact a truly digital-first model of retailing are still being put in place by nearly all retailers in the UK.

Online etail

Multichannel will continue to be a priority for retail businesses 

Murphy went on note that the retailers who are likely to succeed in the near-term are those who are able to adapt technology to deliver online at scale while making their stores more productive. Cracking the economics of multichannel has been, and will continue to be, a priority for the majority of businesses, he summarised.

Chapman, meanwhile, cited the importance of evolving your business digitally in order to respond to next-level customer expectations. Consumers in today’s retail climate want instant gratification of product and experiences, he explained, and therefore retailers need to use digital to develop an agile model of retailing that can pivot around these demands where necessary.

Remaining agile as retail evolves

The retail stream was rounded off by a panel with Ben Leedham, head of IT at Bonmarché, and Mark Isitt, group head of IT and business systems at Aurum Holdings, on how both have embraced digital to ensure their businesses are as agile as possible in response to these evolving customer expectations.

Leedham stressed the importance of updating legacy IT systems in order to implement customer-facing technologies, a process he is championing internally at the clothing retailer.

Meanwhile, Isitt commented on how the business has carefully developed a digital approach to a category in which many retailers and brands have struggled to apply a digital-first approach: luxury. He discussed the importance of technology as being an enabler, to offer customers a complete end-to-end customer and brand experience.

Watch the keynote presentation videos from the event below:

Start your journey towards digital transformation

Discover why leaders in digital transformation generate an average of $100m more in additional operating income each year by downloading Microsoft’s free ebook. Download it here.

Learn more about Dynamics 365 for Retail here.