Retail technology view from the top: Salesforce's head of retail on the changing customer

Roaming the endless aisles of the enormous NRF exhibition hall, no one can say the retail industry is lacking in innovation. From artificial intelligence and the latest digital point of sale solution which links seamlessly to your eCommerce proposition – and even robots were dancing in the aisles.

Shelly Bransten, SVP of Salesforce industries, retail, agrees: "The technology is there, retail doesn't have a technology problem – you're seeing enough of it at this show – it's actually the people and the process and the organisational ability to ingest this change," she said.

"There's that famous management quote: 'culture eats process for breakfast'. And that's what worries me the most."

During the show, a customer of Salesforce – US retailer Target – spoke at the conference about the difficulties of changing the culture within a traditional retail business. Target's technology and digital officer, Mike McNamara, described how when he arrived at the retailer two years ago, Target was running 800 technology projects – and that's as far away from agile working as you can get. He asked his bosses for less money and fewer people to narrow the retailer's technology focus.

"People like Mike are great," says Bransten, who prior to Salesforce ran CRM and digital marketing at Gap. "They're ready to go and he's a change agent. But not every retail executive is like that."

She describes how most store associates own a smartphone, which is the first thing they look at in the morning. "Then they come into their store and it's like the 1950s – that's what worries me is the culture and organisational adoption of the opportunity."

The connected shopper

And it's the modern consumer who is demanding this change from the retail industry –  or the "connected shopper", as Bransten calls them. According to Salesforce research, 51% of customers think they know more about a retailer's product than the store associate – and that's not surprising when shoppers come into a store armed with smart devices, while store employees have unconnected, antiquated POS systems.

"So that's a huge part of our strategy – anchoring on the connected shopper with marketing cloud, connecting the associate with sales cloud and obviously we heard loud and clear from our retail customers that we needed a commerce cloud."

And last summer, Salesforce responded to this cry for help with a massive $2.8 billion acquisition of the cloud-based platform, Demandware, which has allowed Salesforce to enter the eCommerce market with its Salesforce Commerce Cloud solution. The vendor can now connect the dots for its retail consumers, tapping into Demandware's endless aisle solution, which provides online visibility for store associates and shoppers in the store.

"It's from the first screen to the last mile," explains Bransten. "Because 70% of shopping is starting off on that mobile device, but still 85% of it – even by 2020 – is going to finish in the physical brick and mortar. Mobile really is the connective tissue."

The next big thing

Bransten believes the next wave of technology to impact the industry is artificial intelligence which will ensure personalisation tools become more effective. "When personalisation is good, you don't even feel it, it's just a good shopping experience."

She adds: "And customers are changing, I think their willingness – especially millennials – to share personal information in exchange for service and experience is getting higher."

She argues customers are more comfortable with personalised offers, which a few years back may have seemed intrusive, because they are using technology more and more.

"Apple Pay, for example, it's just easier to put your thumb print down and buy something," she explains. "Even three years ago people might have been a little more nervous about that."

And Bransten herself is a prolific online shopper. "I'm a busy working mom, so I have a shopping folder on my phone and I have everything from Neiman Marcus to Net-a-Porter and Amazon to do my grocery shopping."

The sharing economy

Alongside her apps, which also include Macy's and Target's Cartwheel, sits Rent The Runway.

"I love Rent The Runway," she says. "I just went to this black tie event and I rented my dress and got so many compliments on it. And the experience was completely seamless."

Bransten calls the sharing economy "me2B" – the next step on from B2C. "If you talk to people about what they like about Rent The Runway, part of it is obviously the subscription business," she explains. "But so many woman are posting their pictures to show which dress worked and which was flattering. And now Rent The Runway is opening stores – the store is striking back"

She points to other disruptive online retailers who started out online and are now opening up stores – monthly beauty subscription e-tailer Birchbox; eyeglasses retailer, Warby Parker; and men's clothing retailer, Bonobos, which allows customers to browse and purchase in store, but clothes cannot be taken away and are delivered to a customer's home.

She says: "There's a lot of lessons more traditional retailers can learn from these disruptive companies, which is not just about being a subscription business, but putting the shopper at the centre of everything you do."

Check out Essential Retail's video interview with Bransten below: