We need only look at the recent wave of lockdowns across Australia to acknowledge the retail sector is continuing to experience sustained disruption.

Over the last 18 months, retailers have adapted again and again to differing levels of lockdowns, restrictions and public health orders. Accelerating their digital transformation journeys is the only way that retailers can continue to adapt and differentiate themselves in a highly competitive market.

The sector is steadily advancing towards becoming more digitally resilient, according to Google Cloud’s recent Retail Digital Pulse. The report found that retailers understand the importance of enhancing their use of digital tools like data analytics and AI to create more personalised experiences for their customers.

However, becoming a digitally-conscious retailer isn’t easy, and it isn’t something that retailers can do overnight. There remains a big divide between those who have embraced digital and are thriving, and those who have not and are struggling.

The challenges to overcome

Lack of a digital transformation roadmap remains a key challenge. It’s important for  retailers to take the time to assess their digital maturity and then plan for their journey, rather than jumping in blindly. Understanding the priority use cases and the technology foundation required to implement those use cases along with a clear execution roadmap is critical to keep moving forward in this transformation journey.

The second challenge is to have a good understanding and access to the right technologies. As retailers develop their transformation roadmap, having a clear view on the technology & solution architecture is half the battle won.

At the same time, it is important to understand that retailers don’t have to do this alone, with more than half (58.3 per cent) looking to cloud services providers for help with providing the right technologies, tools and implementation expertise. Leaning on the right partner will lead to the right solutions for individual retailers. It’s not a one size fits all.

But the biggest barrier for the industry to overcome is the lack of a digital mindset. It can be easy for any company to stick with things that have worked in the past, play it safe and avoid embracing new tools and technologies available – especially in times of unknown.

However, the reality is that the world isn’t the same, and it’s crucial that retailers are adapting to consumers’ expectations and their changing behaviours. A strong change management process with the right people in place can make a big impact.

Driving success with digital

In an increasingly digital world, consumer expectations are ever focused on personalisation and an engaging digital experience. Having a sound data strategy plays a major role in the ability of retailers to make sound business decisions based on customer behaviour and market dynamics.

But it’s important for retailers to be able to consolidate multiple silos of information and build a unified data model- a system of insight which can enable them to become more data driven & customer centric. When COVID-19 forced closure of storefronts, Country Road Group and David Jones sought to demonstrate the value of having a sound data strategy for both engaging customers and driving sales.

Working with MightyHive and Google Cloud, they were able to consolidate multiple disparate data sources into just three dashboards and better understand the data they gathered. Using tools like BigQuery and Looker, they were able to better gather, explore, share, and visualise the company’s supplier and campaign data. This enables them to gain more comprehensive insights that inform the future growth of the business, and continue meeting customer demand.

Data also plays an important role in creating personalised, engaging experiences for customers. Hanes Australasia – home to some Australia’s best-known apparel and lifestyle brands, including Bonds, Bras N Things, and Sheridan – recognised that data was key to understanding consumer behaviour, preferences, and to drive revenu from its ecommerce investments.

Hanes used Google Cloud to collect detailed in-store transaction data, along with online transaction and customer event data, that is streamed in near real-time into Google Cloud. Hanes is able to use the wealth of information this data delivers to develop actionable insights that supports marketing optimisation and wholesale partners.

Adapting to COVID-normal

Retailers are still navigating what the “new normal” looks like for them and how they can truly merge online and in-store experiences by having a unified digital front door capable of providing unique & personalised experiences that the shoppers are looking for.

A good ecommerce foundation coupled with strong in-store execution continues to be the driving engine for growth and, as long as it does, digital transformation remains central to the long-term success of Australian retailers.

While challenges still exist, it’s essential that retailers commit to a digital strategy and invest in accelerating their journey to become digitally resilient – which, in turn, helps them to meet the increasing expectations of consumers and differentiate in an ever-crowded marketplace.

Sameer Dhingra is director of retail and consumer for Google Cloud, Japan and Asia Pacific.