PROFILE

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 Monster.com. 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.
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  • Posted on: 02/27/2020

    How can retailers bring the best of digital commerce to physical stores?

    Demand forecasting has shown the most promise. Other tech like facial recognition, fraud detection and in-store stock out predictions have been used as well in terms of AI-enabled tech. The only commonality is that these are back office technologies with noticeable ROI that are making inroads. Customer-facing efforts still have some way to go to make them useful and economical. Most larger retailers have already developed innovation labs, pilots and testing centers and stores. These are the most effective ways to trial the technology before full-scale rollouts of the tech, to make sure the tech really does bring customer value. Look for more AI-powered applications in the future.
  • Posted on: 02/25/2020

    Will recruiting challenges slow grocery’s digital transformation?

    Not the single most important determinant and it will take some time to develop digital grocery anyhow. It certainly won’t be an overnight explosion for grocers offering up digital solutions. Those who’ve already started on the transformation path have already learned some of the challenges in finding digital talent. You’ll see consultants, SIs and vendors pick up the technical slack until grocers bring themselves up to speed.
  • Posted on: 02/24/2020

    What are the biggest barriers to AI adoption for retailers?

    The retail industry has been talking about AI for the past few years and we have genuine applications for it, from demand forecasting to online predictive recommendations. However, two big barriers stand in the way -- data infrastructure and public understanding of AI. AI is data heavy, so without the infrastructure to support strong, clean, and accurate data, AI cannot perform. In some cases it’s almost impossible to secure relevant data that will help an AI system solve an app problem. Public understanding on what AI is doing is the second big barrier. AI spending continues to rise, so adoption is increasing, but consumer facing apps don’t highlight the AI pieces nor is it easy to understand underlying algorithms, neural networks and specifically what kind of performance lift the AI components provide. So long as we are challenged to measure, there will be skepticism and hype. Sometimes the data scientist needs to show the benefits that their new AI system has delivered on to impress the exec team, which still sees a black box. As someone else on the thread mentioned, a lot of AI stuff will be invisible to the end user. The retailer still wants profits, but the stock out avoidance AI or the product recommendations AI that influenced profits are behind the scenes.
  • Posted on: 02/21/2020

    What does private equity ownership hold for Victoria’s Secret?

    Despite its retail expertise through acquisitions, the Sycamore organization is financially driven. It’s not about rebuilding the heart and soul of Victoria’s Secret or any of their portfolio companies. It’s about making money. When brand and base coincide, that’s great- but without doubt, the first priority is shareholder value. This may mean turnaround, but it can just as easily turn into liquidation. I’m just not sure that they’ll be able to do anything more than what Wexner could have pulled off. What it can do is inject additional cash and streamline some inefficiencies (e.g. close underperforming stores and enable a 3rd party RIF). L Brands is now the junior partner in this name brand and will have little say in the outcome. If things go south, they’ll sell off the remaining interest in the brand, a turnaround windfall will be reinvested in other assets -- not Victoria's Secret.
  • Posted on: 02/20/2020

    Consumers hate paying for shipping more than just about anything

    Retailers will offer incentives to make their BOPIS platforms perform as well as their online delivery. Once e-commerce is in place, the next jump is to offer BOPIS. Free shipping (and mitigating its attractiveness) is being built into retailer infrastructure. For Amazon it was green fields, for most retailers, however, readjusting continues to take time -- but it’s happening. Retailers have experimented with fast OR free delivery and incentives for pickup, varying delivery times and fulfillment options. Companies like Target offered a new Good and Gather granola bar in a more expensive bag when picking up a BOPIS order. A portion of the delivery dollars saved on pickup for the retailer goes straight to marketing their private label, branding, and retaining the customer for future pickups. These types of initiatives will drive the retail market which remains overwhelmingly in the store.
  • Posted on: 02/19/2020

    Will store associates become the ultimate personalization tool at retail?

    Retailers face an inherent dilemma. Associates are the top operating expense for most retailers and for retail, one of the most difficult to hold onto with employee turnover that exceeds almost all other industries. First step for many retailers is to increase pay, followed by increased training and processes. Without the spending commitment, retailers won’t be able to convert associates into real brand ambassadors and offer personalized stores. Not all retailers offer high pay like Costco, and most will struggle to make the shift to an employee-first focus. The value of training is limited so long as turnover rates remain high. The tech angle can free up some options and perhaps even be an incentive to reduce turnover, but at present these are focused on operational value to the retailer, not enhancing the associate. Moving to 1:1 relationships will mean major changes to hiring, staffing, paying, training and retaining associates -- no walk in the park.
  • Posted on: 02/18/2020

    Does Peapod’s retreat from the Midwest spell trouble for e-grocery?

    Not sure this is tied to pickup locations. The Midwest is big. It’s rural and suburban, excepting the major cities like Chicago. Less than 10% of the business was coming from these midwestern routes and profitability must have been tight given the number of competitors in the region like Instacart and Amazon. For Ahold, this is a financial decision more than anything else. The cost to have a driver ship fresh produce and cold chain stuff is not cheap, and the last mile is where the rubber meets the road. Focusing resources in proven markets with stronger growth makes sense. Exiting a market is still difficult. A secondary reason for this move may be a shift to management at the corporate level for Ahold which is based on the East Coast. Consummation of the acquisition and maybe a way to make their investment work in concert with the parents brick and mortar footprint. For grocery, curbside pickup and omnichannel are growing at faster rates than delivery for so many reasons. The online pure-play options are not going to cut it.
  • Posted on: 02/10/2020

    Why isn’t voice commerce taking off?

    Gene, you hit on the key point. Voice enablement will be the accessory while the visual screen will be the dominant tech -- that’s where I feel things will be heading with voice tech. It’s the easier path for consumers from ecommerce.
  • Posted on: 02/10/2020

    Why isn’t voice commerce taking off?

    Experts on this thread have already touched on trust issues -- but it’s more than that. I like Suresh’s response that voice-only is a lesser experience. A big part of shopping is compare and contrast -- I see Product 1 next to Product 2, examine the details, maybe touch and feel them and perhaps even try the products on. Voice commerce leaves little ability for me to shop and compare. Even comparing price is challenging, and the consumer still wants to make their decisions based on fixed data rather than hunting down every last detail for a hundred different products. Even with video or images, the experience is limited to what’s presented before me -- as a consumer I know that. The option to select is taken away, and hence the interest in using the tech. Not just privacy, but also freedom to choose vanishes with voice commerce. Voice commerce is not for shopping but for buying and replenishment. I just can’t see my Alexa Show rolling out a list of 30 different brands of cookies, their price points, their special offers, followed by ingredients -- and see myself making a solid decision afterwards. Even with AI and personalized data, it will be a challenge to narrow it down -- and a slight miss of forgetting my favorite Oreos would turn me off as a consumer. Add to that the fact that in-home voice products are not as portable or personally relied upon as smartphones and the voice commerce option becomes even less attractive.
  • Posted on: 02/07/2020

    Will a brand refresh make Shipt a household name?

    Good move towards competitive delivery. Love their "over-delivering delivery" tagline -- it expresses that they're providing delivery service -- but with the service. This slams down everyone else and highlights their genuine white glove treatment making it more appealing. Their business model is nice too -- specifically because they’re opening up their services to other retailers like CVS and Petco. And lastly, they are advertising their new brand and marketing it during a time of high demand for last mile delivery - which will only increase. It’s not same-day service but the quality of service as well. They’re building a nice niche as a premium player in this space and that will eventually let them charge premium prices.
  • Posted on: 02/03/2020

    Is Amazon’s speed killing the competition?

    It’s an advantage. Despite this trend towards speed, consumers have begun to understand that it affects more -- such as the environment and more important, their pocketbooks. It’s still not free for the customer. Even Prime customers dish out $6 for under $35 worth of goods plus their monthly fees and non-Prime customers pay a premium of $10 for this service, always with eligible or select goods exceptions. If customers can wait a day or two, other services can deliver at lower cost. Only a subset of the market demands the immediate delivery, so the real question is, how much of an advantage?
  • Posted on: 02/03/2020

    IKEA makes a data promise to its customers

    Like with any good engagement, IKEA’s move makes privacy a collaborative process and directly invests the customer in their own privacy matters. Great move and expect to see more retailers build on this type of model.
  • Posted on: 01/29/2020

    The measured store, version 2.0

    Just to add a thought -- the right abilities here can transform the industry, especially if we can begin to apply strong business logic and AI to customer behavior. More than demographics, the behavior in the moment matters.
  • Posted on: 01/29/2020

    The measured store, version 2.0

    People tracking has been around for decades. Behavior is difficult to track online or off. But for the store the challenge is identity. We know pathing online because we have identified a single customer and follow their specific path, plus the general path to checkout has limited focus - e.g. category, product pages and conversion. The store doesn’t allow that kind of flexibility. In-store heat maps are excellent at finding entrances, exits, and usually the restroom. The zones in a store are weakly designed to capture individual people tracking. Add to that the complexities of privacy and it can become chaotic. Actually, the gap isn’t widening - it’s just wide because we don’t know who the customer is or if the reason they’re in front of the toy section is to appease their kids while they walk around evaluating a product in their hand. The online experience gives us a controlled environment with an almost captive audience whom we at least partially know. Data will first be applied to efficiency and operations like store inventory to prevent stock outs before it is applied to customer behavior.
  • Posted on: 01/28/2020

    Will online food and beverage sales be even bigger than imagined?

    Retailers should interpret this with a grain of salt. Yes, there is a possibility for faster growth, but the real trends from the report are that customers continue to buy in the store, at rates more frequently than in previous years, and at higher prices. Doesn’t sound like a mad rush for the online experience. That doesn’t mean it’s not happening, but it does mean that it’s not exponential and the process is very linear. There is a need to accommodate the fringes of the business which is at 10% for frequent online grocery shoppers. This seems high since only a year ago it was in the single digits. Issues with cold chain, fresh, and perimeter products will continue to keep the process slow and retailers will be forced to push curbside pickup. But by far, the most troubling obstacle will be margins in a retail vertical with tiny margin rates of typically 1 - 3%. Regardless, grocers who want to grow will need to make available some level of online services and work out the logistical costs -- maybe through automation or technology -- to make it appealing to customers.

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