SAP's 2015 Retail Forum in review

Last week, all four RSR Research partners attended SAP's Retail Forum, held this year in Miami. Brian [Kilcourse] does a nice job this week highlighting what he saw in the programme's Supply Chain track. My job is to give an overview of some of the other things we saw at the show.

Trying to summarise several full – and I mean full– days of content is never easy. But if I had to sum it up in one word, that word would be: "focused". Let me explain why.

No one can argue that retail is in chaotic times these days. Hell, mobile devices haven't just interrupted retail – they've interrupted how we interact as a society. SVP Lori Mitchell Keller got one of the show's biggest laughs when she was describing visits from her sister and her kids. The scene, of course, is the two families strewn around the living room after dinner. Except everyone is on a mobile device. “Remember when people would actually visit?”, she asked the crowd. "And  talk?" We all laughed, because we can all relate. But that's not a small thing. To ask anyone – retailer or tech vendor – to stay focused on one vision is becoming increasingly difficult as human beings become more and more engaged within their own unique digital universe.

And so over the course of the show I was impressed with how the myriad presenters I saw stayed on target. You see, too often “focused” gets lumped in with “narrow minded.” SAP is most certainly not that. But they do have talking points. And not like those handed down as law to 24-hour news anchors, either. Yes, there was some repetition, but this year's talking points were squarely built around the importance of the company's customer activity repository (CAR, from here on out). It's the tool that SAP believes will make all the difference going forward: information about the customer = good things for all. Information about what consumers are trying to accomplish. Information about what their journey has already involved. And making this information available at via tools that leverage CAR data every step of the way, to the people who need that information most (whether merchant, marketer, CIO or store associate). There was nary a question lobbed at any presenter over the course of the show that couldn't get tied back to CAR. And that's a good thing. It means the company is genuinely trying to help retailers remain customer-centric. And no matter how dedicated a retailer may be to that goal, it's all the more difficult to attain if the retailer's solution providers are not.

For example, I loved when SVP and Retail GM Matt Laukaitis led off the opening keynote with the following line: “It's no longer whether you think of yourself as a B2B company or a B2C company. The truth is you are a C2B company now.” Several presenters recommended that retailers liken their survival strategies to that of the animal kingdom's lemur. Not something you might expect to hear, but when you take into account lemurs' adaptability, keen observational senses, and prowess to make speedy adjustments in the face of both new obstacles  and  opportunities, it becomes legitimate business advice. And I also really liked when Raif Barbados, head of eCommerce at Loblaw's, shared some insights about Amazon. Despite arguments around the online giant's profitability, Amazon continually spends as much budget on research and development as Apple, and has for over a decade now. This includes the years when Apple was designing both the iPhone and iPad, if you can get your mind around that. So his advice to the audience? “I hope your next hire – and the next ten after that – are all software engineers and research analysts.”

108 billion dollar retailer Kroger talked about how it transformed its workforce. More than 400,000 associates were being managed by spreadsheets as recently as 2010. Under Armour managed to make it to $3 billion in annual revenue while still cutting purchase orders via spreadsheet, only to have those orders walked over to one person in the office for approval, walked over to another to be entered into the system, only to have a paper invoice arrive several weeks later – upon which someone would then have to determine whether it was real or not. And when SAP shared a demo featuring a fictitious character named “Lola,” virtually every SAP technology was put on display. Her shopping trip to buy Pepsi before a cook-out resulted in a discounted Coke purchase, leveraging Hybris to offer the cross sell, CAR to determine inventory levels, IoT (via weighted shelves) to provide communication, all while HANA powered it all.

Later on, actor/businesswoman Jessica Alba reminded the audience that we are living in times when one or two people can take on some of the most powerful industries on earth. Her Honest Company products were born out of an allergic reaction to laundry detergent. Three years later her company has stolen more than $1 billion in market share from traditional CPG providers via baby, cleaning supply and beauty products. Who'd have thunk that was possible a decade ago? And when asked about future plans, the brand's founder said the goal was to go from a wide-net approach (no doubt an eye had been cast at less-toxic food and clothing options), to narrowing the things the brand takes on – and doing them better. Focus.

There are far too many stories to share from such retail presenters as Target, Costco, Discount Tire and Brooks Brothers over the following days (if you want to hear a funny one, drop me an email and I’ll share Target's Shazaam tale with you). But in the end, my takeaway from all of it remains constant: SAP is focused right now. They think leveraging CAR will help their clients become all that much more focused on consumers, as well. There's still a long way to go, for certain. But if they maintain this focus, they might be able to help us all make sense of how to better serve the new consumer yet.

This article originally appeared on The RSR Research website. It is reproduced with the organisation's permission.