Julian Mills is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Quorso, a company that provides a platform to simplify and streamline workflows for district and store leaders. He also founded and co-chaired the Global Infrastructure Initiative with Madeleine Albright, a gathering of the world's most influential infrastructure leaders. Mills also holds the role of Business Partner at OMERS Ventures, participating in many investments and commercial deals.

In an exclusive interview with Retail Tech Insights Europe, Mills shares his insights about OMERS Ventures’ interactions with retailers and the ongoing trends and challenges of the industry.

Could you summarize what the retail industry at large has experienced over the course of the pandemic?

The most significant trend in the industry during the pandemic was the surge in the use of alternative ways to buy products from retailers; this is one side of the coin. The other side concerns the complexity of running an operation in the current market. The retail sector used to have just one sales channel, where customers visited a store and picked products directly off the shelf. Now, however, we have over 10, 15, or even 30 sales channels. Running a store is a massive responsibility and tiring as well, and the resignation of staff and store teams in great numbers further adds to the challenges of today.

How are retailers trying to approach these prerequisites? Are there any best practices that you would like to recommend to some of the peers who might read this article?

At the moment, simplification is the talk of the town for every retailer. In order to run omnichannel outlets, store managers, area managers, and district managers must access 20-25 reports, tools, and apps, which do not seem to work. There is just too much information and they cannot prioritize one channel over the other. Instead, we do it for them, helping prioritize between different competing demands in someone's time to show managers what they need to focus on and do right now.

How do you envision bridging the gap between offline modalities of customer interaction and the much more digitalized experiences offered by modern retailers?

There are two aspects to these developments. The first one concerns the impact of the great resignation in the retail industry. The second aspect revolves around the evolution of stores.

Store managers play a critical role in translating a company’s or business’s strategies into day-to-day actions. It is interesting as, traditionally, one apprentices them self into such core roles, spending years learning and gaining experience.

During the great resignation, there was an unprecedented turnover of employees. Store managers who are employed for less than 18 months, for instance, spend less than 2000 hours at their jobs. And it takes 10,000 hours to get good at something. This makes the new hires relatively inexperienced. Yet,they are being asked to perform several critical tasks with that level of experience, which is not easy for them. This is a real challenge, and retailers are looking to simplify the process of understanding and acquiring the right tools to effectively run a store.

"Sales go up and down, but the services stay forever"

As for the evolution of the store, there is a slight divide between Europe and America. In the US, large retailers,such as Target,express that non-store-based retailers and omnichannel ways of buying products grew during the pandemic. However, it still only accounts for about 15 percent of all retail sales. Even then, around 90 to 93 percent of all transactions still touch the store at some point for returns or pick-ups; this is the American story and physical stores are still super important. In Europe, however, online stores were adopted rapidly and carries much significance. Stores are becoming more like showcases, similar to IKEA, opening a concept store on Oxford Circus. Customers can browse furniture and see what they can do with them, and then later place an order online, which I find fascinating.

What is your take on technologies such as machine language or artificial intelligence making their way into some of the preferential analytics conducted on the retail side?

Machine language (ML) is an incredibly powerful technology that is still in its infancy. People frequently talk about its applications for customers, and there is clear value—but it is fairly well-explored. I feel that professionals are not looking at its value enough in operations. Assuming that there are 500 stores, selling 20,000 skews, MLcan help tie these data sets to what people in stores are doing to drive sales. We are only at the beginning of leveraging ML to learn what promotions to work on and optimize shift patterns and layouts for different stores. ML is not yet utilised at scale and there's a huge opportunity for such a development.

Computer vision, for instance, is another interesting technology. It is among the most important advancements to consider for both consumers and store associates. The innovation helps store associates understand whether the planogram has been set correctly, identify operational gaps, or catch pricing mistakes as well. Improving such functions is super valuable.

Is there any advice that you would like to share for the upcoming players within the retail space?

Using data and ML to simplify store operations is the biggest opportunity in retail technology. Beyond that, the supply chain is another major area of focus along with BI and reporting tools. Data, dashboards, and reports are everywhere, with people trying best understand how to use these innovations. Therefore, I feel these are the areas that need to be explored to keep retail businesses moving forward.