Retailers have always been at the forefront of innovation – from department stores like Selfridges using electric lighting at a time most people used candles at home, to the advent of ecommerce in the 90s when computers were not yet ubiquitous in people’s houses (or pockets).

Since then, retailers have been hyper focused on innovating the customer experience, bringing us to today’s hybrid shopping experience that blurs the lines between physical and digital. While hybrid retailing has been around for some time, demand for this model peaked during COVID-19, as retailers needed to offer a low-contact alternative to in-store shopping, while investing in ecommerce infrastructure to keep customers actively shopping during social distancing.

However, the digitalisation of operations came with a set of new, or amplified, challenges. Organisations were facing spikes in order volumes, straining their digital and physical systems alike. Very quickly, businesses realised the need for end-to-end visibility of physical and online operations, and streamlined processes across supply chain, stores, merchandising, finance, and human resources.

While innovations like automation can help improve logistics, recent Mendix research found a third of retailers and wholesalers still track inventory using paper or verbal communication. The same study found that 42 percent of organisations in the sector don’t believe they’re doing very well on managing inventory with accuracy, while 59 percent also said that they could do better on the order fulfilment side.

Easing the transition to hybrid retail has progressively become top of mind for many leaders wishing to build a resilient retail business. And low-code can just be the key that unlocks this possibility.

Easing the transition to hybrid retail

The shift to hybrid retail can seem daunting to a lot of companies. Most retailers these days face a common challenge: the need to innovate in real-time while navigating legacy systems and processes, many of which were already outdated prior to the pandemic.

When transforming retail processes, business owners still want to keep customers happy, improve margins, and promote business growth. The blurring of the lines between digital and physical channels means shoppers have more options – and expectations –  than ever before.

Low-code application development platforms allow leaders to develop solutions 10x faster than traditional methods, and help retailers capitalise on market trends as soon as they emerge. By more rapidly creating hyper-personalised customer experiences, retailers can improve retention and brand loyalty. According to Deloitte, virtually every business leader (97 percent) agrees that brands have to harness data, analytics and AI to create hyper-personalised experiences. With low-code app development, industry leaders can synchronise customer data and use AI to accelerate the creation of such experiences.

An ongoing challenge of the hybrid retail model is related to supply chain and inventory, especially when it comes to lack of visibility over both. Mendix research on the state of low-code has revealed that ‘long lead times for order fulfilment’ was amongst the frustrations most reported by retail and wholesale businesses. Additionally, 28 percent of business leaders also complained of inventory management as a hurdle to adopt the hybrid model. By providing automated customer support and real-time inventory status solutions, like smart shelves and computer vision, low-code can help businesses set realistic expectations before upsetting their customers with delays.

Low-code app development platforms eliminate the technical limitations of traditional software development and help improve collaboration across organisations and third parties, ultimately providing industry leaders with an unified retail commerce model.

Building business resilience with low-code

Using a mix of visual development approach, drag-and-drop components, and an intuitive interface, low-code application development platforms help retailers digitalise operations quickly and easily. For a retailer, this means having the power to quickly design and launch software solutions that will augment the systems they already use, from customer relationship management (CRM) to warehouse management systems.

While traditional application development requires in-depth knowledge of programming languages, low-code platforms empower retail business owners and employees to meet business needs without letting the lack of technical expertise get in the way of innovation. In a time when vacancy rates in tech are 60 percent higher than the national average, with the most severe gaps in occupations like software programmers, using these platforms is critical to design, build and implement powerful applications while navigating external challenges.

Mendix research also revealed that 88 percent of retailers give their staff the autonomy to build their own software solutions. Giving employees from different business units this ability not only makes sense from a talent shortage perspective, but it also means that  domain experts are implementing technology that addresses their teams’ operational needs.

Low-code: from crisis solution to core technology

Between 2020 and 2021, many businesses adopted low-code to create emergency solutions in order to survive. But today’s focus on implementing a hybrid model and overcoming challenges like supply chain disruptions has seen low-code become an essential technology. Amongst global retailers, 69 percent say low-code has evolved from crisis solution to a core part of their businesses. It is safe to say that low-code is well on its way to replace primary and legacy systems.

In the future of unified retail commerce, low-code might overtake traditional software development, providing a way for businesses to more quickly bring new innovations to market, and with more participation from non-IT staff. In fact, while 87 percent of companies plan to speed up the pace of their software development in the next 2 years, Gartner predicts that by 2024 80 percent of products and services will be built by professionals outside of IT – using solutions like low-code platforms.

The retail industry has historically been at the forefront of technological innovation, and many of today’s leading players have already employed low-code to their advantage. Of course not all firms are interested in finding new ways to do things faster and better – that’s why the Wikipedia page ‘Defunct retail companies of Australia’ exists, after all.

Jornt Moerland is regional vice president of Asia Pacific at Mendix.