Pairing the Art of Decision Making With the Science of Artificial Intelligence

If there is one takeaway from 2020, it’s that nothing is certain. While retailers have been able to rely on data from years past to inform decisions, ongoing disruption due to a global pandemic instead saw companies who were organized in agility coming out on top — hence a notable acceleration of technology investments.

With experts saying there will be no going back to “normal,” it is more important than ever to have a strong data strategy and tools that inform omnichannel decisions and adapt quickly. Here, Richard Widdowson, vice president of retail solutions at SAS retail analytics, talks to WWD about the changing needs of retail, the swift acceleration of technology, and the importance of understanding the consumer. 

WWD: How has technology, like the solutions that SAS offers, become vital for retailers especially given the current environment in the pandemic?

R.W.: The concept of digital transformation — something we’ve talked about for years — suddenly took center stage because that’s where customer engagement meets product demand. When the pandemic began, we stayed close to our customers. Both online and in-store, we saw unpredictable shopping patterns and sales volumes. Simultaneously, our ability to respond to consumer demand was stymied by product shortages, staffing challenges, and travel and safety restrictions. Across the board, retailers told us they wished they had better organized their data before COVID-19, so it was easier to gain insight into their overall business status, make decisions, and act confidently.

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Richard Widdowson, Vice President of Retail Solutions at SAS retail analytics. Steve Muir

WWD: Have you seen a need in the pandemic for this technology to accelerate?

R.W.: Almost overnight we had to move from long-term demand planning to more agile planning that painted a vivid picture of what to expect one to three weeks out. To achieve predictions that inspire action, your forecasting approach must be hyperlocal and fueled with external data that creates an accurate view of what’s truly happening. “External data” includes details like store closures, travel restrictions, mobility, social media and web traffic. These external factors became powerful ingredients to predict shopping behavior.

Agility like that happens in the cloud, and we saw the need for cloud analytics grow exponentially in 2020. Having access to smarter technology that helps predict and plan consumer demand is essential now. It’s not something traditional forecasting tools do that well. Traditional tools historically looked only at sales and inventory data to estimate what to buy and ship months ahead.

WWD: From your perspective how are retailers’ needs changing in the pandemic?

R.W.: Nurturing agility is the most important thing a retailer can do now. From headquarters staff to local store associates, everybody must roll up their sleeves and embrace this change to survive the business environment created by COVID-19. As this new operating model emerged in early 2020, long-term plans and large projects took a step back. It’s now normal for a retailer to identify a problem, test new technology solutions to solve it overnight, then put them into operation the next day. It’s this kind of agility that’s crucial to master, and SAS’ flexible cloud analytics can help make that journey easier.

WWD: How does SAS differentiate itself in the market?

R.W.: SAS has been the analytics expert for more than 40 years, and now we’re changing the game we invented with SAS Viya. SAS Viya is engineered to take advantage of the latest cloud technologies and be delivered and updated continuously. It marries the art of decision making with the science of artificial intelligence. SAS Viya puts powerful analytics in everybody’s hands regardless of location to help the organization make trusted decisions faster.

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