Ananda Chakravarty

Retail Thought Leader
Ananda is a retail thought leader. Currently Ananda is Director, Retail Omnichannel Solutions Strategy at Oracle. Ananda was a senior analyst at Forrester advising c-level leaders on digital store, digital store technologies, retail enablement, digital in-store analytics and Digital Grocery. Prior to Forrester, Ananda served as Director of Enterprise Digital Strategy at The Hartford and executive and product roles at Staples, Talbots and Opinions reflect those of the author only. Ananda holds an MBA from Northeastern University, a Masters in Electrical Engineering from University of Massachusetts, Lowell and a Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from Clemson University.
  • Posted on: 08/03/2020

    How is Tractor Supply acing the pandemic?

    Smart management and a strong business model. TSC has managed to operate in almost all U.S. states offering a rural lifestyle business and providing critical services and products to the rural farmer and for neighborhoods that face fewer threats from the pandemic due to lower density populations. Almost half of their business is in livestock and pet feed- making it as important as grocery. Combine that with relentless focus on the customer and high importance to employee well-being and the business is slated to succeed in today’s climate. They’ve done a fantastic job with their top management as well. CEO Hal Lawton (big fan, I’ll admit it) brings experience from Macy’s and eBay to provide exactly what is needed in an omnichannel world. Imagine the only general store in a small town - decked out with top quality people and technology.
  • Posted on: 08/01/2020

    What didn’t Jeff Bezos know and when didn’t he know it?

    Gene, though I believe he might not have the details, I don’t believe as CEO he could not know the answers. The buck stops with the CEO. The CEO still has the responsibility for all actions of the organization. He should have been briefed on the potential question by his underlings and had a clear reply. I’m certain all of the key answers were at least partially scripted -- especially when being televised. PR is critical to Amazon, and this would be no different. In this case, I suspect his legal counsel suggested, "I don’t know" is probably your best answer and to skirt the issue, and so it was given. I’m certain he would have some deeper details to share, and if not, has the power to find out.
  • Posted on: 07/30/2020

    What didn’t Jeff Bezos know and when didn’t he know it?

    Lets assume for a moment Bezos was completely truthful in his answers - the sale of stolen and counterfeit goods has been an ongoing problem and he has instituted (at least in name) programs to address the issue. More importantly, to be fair to Bezos, he has 2.5 million+ sellers on the platform and over $160 billion in third-party merchant goods sold on his site. The real question here is, what is the level of responsibility his platform has over sellers on his site and tracking counterfeits? For end-customers, the counterfeits are difficult to detect, only the brand names like Gucci, Ulta, Prada, etc. care about and take steps to stop the counterfeiting, but they are also depending on and growing business with huge markets in Asia - particularly China, which is known for many actors engaged in counterfeiting. For Bezos, he may truthfully not know or perhaps can't know because of the volume of business. Putting impenetrable safeguards in place can be cost prohibitive and lawsuits to date are a lower cost of doing business. On the other hand, maybe he hasn't prioritized the issue at all - how much is really negligence and a real tort against the consumer?
  • Posted on: 07/29/2020

    How can retailers differentiate curbside delivery?

    The transition to curbside has been messy and is far from complete. Retailers have consistently struggled to move to curbside pickup, as it extends BOPIS. Retailers were not ready to train, hire or repurpose current associates into pick and pack laborers who could also greet, service and engage customers. But the twist of the pandemic and fate has pushed this onto many retailers - so the going has been and continues to be a challenge. Grocery chains who had never thought of e-commerce delivery and are now working through Instacart and other vendors for e-commerce are trying to find ways to introduce curbside pickup and are integrating solutions that are easy to digest and low in cost. Before “surprise and delight,” retailers will need to get the basics right - on-time, fast presentation of the correct products in a safe manner at curbside or their car. When they’ve mastered this at high efficiency and low cost - which hasn’t been the case yet - retailers can move onto innovation. Like the hospitality sector at its best. Curbside by itself is an important surprise and delight - with flawless execution will come droves of customers appreciating the convenience.
  • Posted on: 07/28/2020

    Has retail adaptation become more about survival than competitive edge?

    Retail adaptability has always been about survival. Retail has been in place for centuries and those that can adapt, survive. Competitive advantage is a also about survival - longer term. It's like going on a treasure hunt but the treasure is moving continuously, providing new clues on where to find it (and making old clues obsolete). To use an overused cliche, but one apt for the situation: "skate to where the puck is going to be." Companies which can identify, understand and predict where consumer behavior will be in the next three months can take advantage of the here and now. These are the companies that will both survive and have a competitive advantage. Certainly no walk in the park for retail -- but a definite market advantage until a vaccine or regular treatment comes out AND becomes accepted by the general public.
  • Posted on: 07/27/2020

    Retailers need to reorganize like a 21st century business

    @Gene -- love the reference to straight line trends. That's exactly what people keep missing when they look for the hockey stick curves. It's linear growth, not exponential, and pandemic trends have only pushed the line a little closer, not converted it into an exponential growth trend.
  • Posted on: 07/27/2020

    Retailers need to reorganize like a 21st century business

    The retail organization is complicated as it is and each one is unique with its own needs, so broad generalizations on what to drive towards are difficult to build out. Holistic thinking and customer-centric thinking should have been part of the makeup of retailers long before the current scenarios of COVID-19. Chief digital officers are a strong bet, especially as you're transitioning to digital-specific technologies and curbside. If there had to be one restructuring factor that should be taken that would be the CEO or person in charge providing full executive support to newly adopted (especially digital) initiatives. The CEO needs to throw their full weight as a leader behind the initiatives so they become more than just graphics on a Powerpoint and instead something that the entire organization is driving towards - it needs to be part of the executive vision and not just a reaction to current times.
  • Posted on: 07/24/2020

    Retail shrink rose to all-time high in 2019

    Does having a fancy car enable it to be stolen more often? No, it's bad actors who commit the crime. We can swap that with being a woman, having a dog, or owning a gun (to be controversial). The tech doesn't cause the act, but there may be higher likelihood that crimes are committed when it's easier to do it. Organized crime has become far more sophisticated, and targeting of the easiest homes in a neighborhood has been commonplace among burglars for centuries. Tech is not a cause. Solutions, however, start with watching for crime, and the best options are just having good training and awareness of what shoplifting is, how they engage, and what to do about it. It's old school, but it's basic training for retail associates -- that's too often overlooked. Discouraging employee theft is also important, given the amount of shrink that comes from this avenue. This can take a variety of forms, from camera tech to stronger store management. We'll see more problems with shrink, but I expect to see some of it in the supply chain -- especially the haphazard processes for last-mile delivery, which will be a prime target for organized crime.
  • Posted on: 07/24/2020

    Has retail permanently downsized?

    The thinking going through the minds of many retail employers is "how do I reduce my costs so I can stay alive during this time period?" As we all recall, the top expense for most retailers is labor -- finding ways to reduce this expense can translate into actual profit for the time period. Retailers will find ways to reduce staff and increase productivity. In back office operations, retailers will look to automation. In storefront ops, it will be reducing staff and finding ways to extend staff duties. The typical store employee is not highly skilled. High school students can operate a register or manage basic restocking, so as long as there is a demand for jobs, there won't be a problem in recruiting workers. However, that doesn't bring in top talent or committed talent to retailers who build from within. Whatever the case, COVID-19 has inflicted a scar on the retail industry which will take time to heal and needs to prevent further infection.
  • Posted on: 07/23/2020

    Best Buy connects strong sales to frontline worker performance

    Employee investment has shown to pay dividends. Companies like Costco, Walmart, Target, Albertsons, BJs, Amazon et. al. also have increased pay to $15/hr or more, so Best Buy's move here is in line with competitive trends. Retailers highest cost is labor, and it's also their most prevalent resource -- enabling word of mouth marketing, internal sales, brand ambassadorship and good customer service. All are critical differentiators in today's market. Best Buy has broken even with the pay raise, so not a substantial change here, but what they are doing in terms of training and expanding other services are what will keep them ahead of the curve. Their smart moves will further enable the innovative and powerful services like Geek Squad, which is offering up in-home services again if employees volunteer for it, and contactless curbside pickup.
  • Posted on: 07/23/2020

    Is there a path to profitable grocery delivery?

    Currently, regional chains are at a disadvantage in part due to economies of scale. I'll echo Suresh's thoughts that volume is a critical piece to make it worthwhile. Local and regional chains operate at tiny margins of 3-5% and depend on huge volume to be profitable. Adding large tech CAPEX plus labor and delivery costs is challenging, and payback can take years without volume, making them non-practical and in many cases a drain on their regular business. These chains won't be able to integrate the delivery capability with their day-to-day operations and will need outside cash (and possibly large debt burdens) to support their initiative. Last point would be the chains may not see any profitability from their delivery operations at all without high efficiency or strictly local metro operations -- cutting out parts of the market and limiting growth of their programs. Huge risk with little view of a reward. One of the reasons companies like Instacart will continue to thrive.
  • Posted on: 07/21/2020

    Google breaks into mobile video shopping

    The Google move here is exciting to see, especially if they can package the experience well. Social media right now is an influencer, not a transaction channel and hence, retailers can get away with an image based product search limited to descriptions and reviews. There are so many extra steps for a consumer to buy something they spot in a movie, in a YouTube video, in a social media stream, or even online in a non-ecommerce channel. The ability to change the packaged experience to include transaction experience can change the value proposition by offering an automated process to buy or reserve whenever consumers want. A solution that tracks and builds not just static image assets, but also includes video will be a powerful tool in harnessing social media as part of the product selling process. Though I suspect demand is not there yet, we need to track this concept as it evolves. Google will be one of the key players in video search.
  • Posted on: 07/20/2020

    Why does it take a crisis for retailers to get innovative?

    Most management is risk and change averse, especially when it comes to critical business decisions that bring in the bucks. What the pandemic has done is introduced a new rule in the game where earlier business decisions no longer guarantee bringing in the bucks. Innovation is something every company must learn to engage, and retailers who have been set in their ways must adapt to new scenarios and new ways of doing business to be successful. For some retailers, digital first still might not matter, but for most, there will be a rapid shift demanding digital as part of their offering. Darwinism at its best -- survival of the fittest.
  • Posted on: 07/17/2020

    Is retail’s contactless future here now?

    On the payment side, the U.S. has been late to the game and we’ll see faster adoption of contactless payments due to COVID-19, because of these factors:
    • More retailer adoption;
    • Easing restrictions by finance;
    • Customer behavior changes.
    More specifically, retailers are adopting NFC enabled card payments, almost 99 percent of the top 200 retailers are contactless-enabled. Financial networks are expanding contactless including new policies such as less signature capture and higher spend thresholds. Lastly, consumers are seeking hygiene-friendly environments in retail. Approx. 87 percent of U.S. shoppers prefer to shop in stores with touchless or robust self-checkout options. Contactless payment has already been growing and retailers in countries like the U.K. operate ~70 percent of stores and ~40 percent of card transactions using contactless. In the U.S., many major retailers and QSRs have adopted contactless including McDonald's, Dunkin', CVS, Publix, Walmart and Target and a host of others. Even before COVID-19, contactless was poised to grow at almost 20 percent CAGR. COVID-19 has only accelerated this growth -- expect to see more contactless going forward.
  • Posted on: 07/16/2020

    How murky has COVID-19 made retail data?

    Despite many who smartly and accurately speak about broken data models, I will take a step outside of the general consensus and suggest that data has become even more important now than ever before. Consumer data still drives customer needs - and real time data is the most valuable. Companies like Amazon process over 29 million transactions daily (peak). Walmart is making $35 million per hour. The retail engine provides us with plentiful and reliable data about what’s next and predictive patterns to adjust and adapt. The length of the pandemic has also been long - with notable points of inflection such as phase two openings of non-essential retail. There are enormous amounts of data that would be relevant and critical to predictive modeling. More important, the uncertainty of retailers means that we need to rely more on the most recent data trends. Lastly, data models can be changed and tested. There’s no reason to believe an adjustable data model that has inherent assumptions are locked in place. Accuracy will be maintained as more data is added. AI is designed to adjust with changes in data trends. The best AI tools will provide relevant data and assumptions can be checked. Long term implications are that with abundant data, which is still quite available, our data scientists will be able to leverage data for marketing and retailing purposes.

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