Robert Mills, EVP, Chief Technology, Digital Commerce and Strategy Officer, Tractor Supply Company [NASDAQ: TSCO]

Robert Mills, EVP, Chief Technology, Digital Commerce and Strategy Officer, Tractor Supply Company [NASDAQ: TSCO]

1) How has the advent of latest innovations around retail management technologies impacted the industry? In your opinion, how would it reshape the retail landscape?

We are currently living in a period where the pace of change is dramatically accelerating. Prior to the Internet, it previously took multiple decades to reach mass adoption following the introduction of a new technology. As an example, the introduction of the telephone, radio, and the television each took multiple decades to reach mass adoption following introduction. Today, mass adoption is often measured in a few years or months, such as the case with the Web (7 years), Facebook (3 years), and the iPhone (2.5 years). With the pace of change increasing, it is more critical than ever for retailers to be in a position to respond quickly to the constantly evolving needs of customers.

Omni-channel capabilities have now become table stakes and customers expect the ability to shop anytime, anywhere, or any way. At Tractor Supply, we have introduced a number of new capabilities to drive greater convenience for customers, including the ability for customers to shop online and pickup in store, ship to store/home, same day delivery services, and in-store digital technologies to improve the shopping experience. An example of this is in-store digital kiosks with access to over 100,000 products online, with the ability to ship to the customer’s local store or home. Tractor Supply embraces a test and learn culture, which includes experimenting with a number of technologies to strive to continuously improve the customer experience, such as testing of self-checkout capabilities, lockers for pickup of online orders, and other technologies.

  The use of AI has the potential to unleash greater productivity and cost savings through automation of back office functions 

Looking forward, artificial intelligence (AI) and big data will continue to grow in criticality for retailers. At Tractor Supply, we are leveraging AI to enhance the online search experience for customers using voice and image recognition, as well as enabling more personalized search results. In addition, Tractor Supply is leveraging Neighbor’s Club data to better target marketing to customers and understand the frequency and category-specific needs of each customer to enable more personalized merchandising advertisements.

Technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT), Augmented Reality (AR), and automation and robotics will also continue to evolve and play a role in the retail industry. As part of our test and learn culture, we are continuing to test these technologies and evaluate them as part of our overall roadmap.

To capitalize on consumer trends, we have introduced ‘smart’ products online to help customers to more easily monitor their animals and land anytime or anywhere (e.g. smart pet feeders, pet monitors, pet activity trackers, cellular enabled trail cameras, etc.).

2) As a passionate leader in retail environments, you have worked in many organizations; how do the retail management techniques differ in each of the organizations and what improvements are necessary to achieve the next level?

At Tractor Supply, we have a strong company culture that is focused on our mission and values. Our leadership philosophy includes ensuring every team member is empowered to do whatever it takes to support our customers. Our leadership team practices a servant leadership approach, where leadership strives to do everything possible to support our store team members. We also believe in the power of purpose, ensuring every team member understands the role they play in supporting our customers.

3) Where do you see the future of retail management solutions headed? How will technology play a key factor in shaping the marketing space?

AI will play a key factor in shaping the marketing space, with a shift from ‘mass personalization’ to ‘one-to-one marketing’. Data has evolved from generic categories such as gender and age, towards much more specific data such as customer transaction history, social media, online activity, communications, etc. I believe this is enabling retailers with the ability to identify new revenue opportunities and move from mass marketing or a market segmentation approach, toward one-to-one engagement over multiple communication methods such as text message and natural language with ‘smart’ devices.

4) Which AI applications are playing a role in automation or augmentation of the retail process? How are retail companies using these technologies to stay ahead of their competitors today, and what innovations are being pioneered as potential retail game-changers over the next decade?

The applications for AI in the retail industry are quite broad and include numerous categories, such as: big data and analytics, voice-enabled devices and natural language, and autonomous vehicles. In the near term, big data and machine learning will enable retailers with the ability to drive much more personalized experience for customers, capitalize on new revenue streams, and drive greater efficiency across the supply chain. AI-powered voice recognition will also enable customers with the ability to easily communicate through mobile devices and ‘smart’ devices for product information and ordering. In addition, the proliferation of sensors, together with machine learning, will enable ‘smart’ devices to become even ‘smarter’, such as the ability to automatically order products. The use of AI has the potential to unleash greater productivity and cost savings through automation of back office functions, using technologies such as robotics process automation.

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