With the National Retail Federation’s BIG SHOW happening now, we sat down with our new VP, Commerce, Chase Hill, to hear his thoughts on the state of retail in 2019. Chase joins Coveo with over 18 years’ industry experience as an eCommerce services, technology, and client-side practitioner.

Q: What is the biggest challenge the retail industry faces right now?

Chase: I’d say that the largest threat for retailers in 2019 is differentiation in the face of the competition from Amazon and other category-specific retailers.  Amazon in particular is encroaching upon territory they haven’t historically addressed – think of the Whole Foods acquisition in 2017 – and they’re continuing to grow at an unprecedented pace. It used to be that some product categories were off limits for Amazon, but they’ve proven everything is fair game.

Additionally, large omnichannel retailers still struggle with a single view of the customer. Recognizing that an individual shopper who browses in a catalog, reviews choices in a mobile app, and buys in a physical store – or even places orders in a call center – is the same person across all channels can be difficult. The winners of that game can truly differentiate themselves, but connecting the dots is very tough and the key to doing so lies in access to and management of data.

Retailers in 2019 have oceans of data to cope with, particularly when you consider all of those channels and all of the customer touch points associated with them. Distilling that information into actionable intelligence is essential for the differentiation we’re talking about, yet few players have elegantly tackled this challenge. For the digital merchant, the name of the game is relevance: which information can be discarded and which should be pored over and acted upon? The sheer volume of what’s available makes that task pretty daunting.

Q: So are we on the path to addressing this?

Chase:  We’ve made great strides over the last 20 years. Buy online & pick-up in store was challenging for a long time; mobile shopping experiences were sub-par until recent years; and application of cross-channel solutions that leverage the best of both worlds – social media, augmented/virtual reality, or voice applied to a real world purchase – is still relatively new. In the past, I’ve referred to technology adoption within the eCommerce industry as a something like a slinky: shopping remains essentially static until a disruptive application nudges early adopter user experiences to another level, and the momentum from that success causes rest of the industry to follow.

Machine learning is a good example of a game changer. ML enables digital retailers – who are commonly asked to do more with less – to wade through data swamps, find what’s relevant, and apply that knowledge to a better customer engagement model. But implementation of ML can seem more daunting than it really is, so while we’re on the path to tackling the data challenge, it remains pervasive in 2019.

Q: So what can retailers do to address this challenge?

Chase: Several things, really. Overcome legacy thinking about what’s possible; try to avoid deprioritizing projects that could move the needle on the customer experience across the organization. For example, eCommerce had grown so consistently year over year that I think some players are comfortable at present maintaining the status quo, which simply means that the differentiation issue has only become more pronounced. Often, the business of running the business is so time-consuming that organizational silos develop and persist. If signal data is aggregated so that a single customer journey can be plotted across all touch points, then that siloed information becomes relevant across the enterprise. Once it’s relevant to everyone, it’s actionable by everyone. And I think that’s a great step towards differentiation.

Have a question for Chase? Meet him at NRF at booth #1428 or ask us a question on Twitter @Coveo!