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Infor on retail at NRF '19 - C-level buy-in is fueling retail cloud adoption, and storefronts still count

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed January 23, 2019
Next up in my NRF 2019 series - Infor speaks to the retail feedback on the show floor. Yeah, AI is hot, but customers are asking tougher questions. C-level buy in on retail change is higher - and that matters when transformation is called for.

The best and worst of NRF is the scramble across the show floor to dig out the smart retail ideas.

When I arrived at Infor's booth, espresso in hand, it was day three. Erick Rowe, Vice President Industry Strategy Retail and Doug Tiffan, Chief Merchant Infor, were on hand for a show review.

The Infor booth was bustling, so I asked Rowe and Tiffan, what are they hearing on the ground? Tiffan pointed to a key shift in digital retail: C-level involvement.

We still hear a lot about the quest for digitalization. So, people or customers are thinking about, "Where do I even start?" And there's a lot of debate on what's most important. The thing that I see though is that, different than prior years, and it even showed up in the attendance here at the booth, there's more C-level involvement here. The C-level is walking the show.

And what accounts for the change?

I think that has to do with the CEOs of the world, the CIOs and CFOs, realizing that to get behind the transformation of your company, it's a change of mentality. It has to come from the top.

AI must pass the retail relevance test

Rowe added another change - AI. Yes, there was "AI" on display last year, but this year, there's a desire to understand the nuts and bolts.

Last year there was a lot of interesting AI, and it felt like everyone was talking about AI. This year it's going down one more level, to understand what it actually does.

Retail leaders want to know what they are getting into:

One CIO worded it well. He said, "You can't just tell me the answer is seven. You have to blend the art and the science together for my merchants, before they start picking their assortments."

Now it's less about a general tech trend. AI must pass the retail relevance test:

Last year, everybody got that this is a game changer. But now it's "Okay, it's happening, but what does that really mean? And what's it going to mean to my business process?"

Retail cloud adoption and the cloud-first shift

Which brings us to Infor, and the role of the retail solutions provider. I told the guys about my time at the Intel booth, looking at their new Open Retail Initiative. It's about recognizing the problem of interoperability. "AI" is only as smart as the data underneath it. Data silos = dumb AI. As robotic assistants and smart devices proliferate, the challenge of data interoperability increases. So how does Infor retail fit into that? Tiffan responded:

At more than one customer meeting, there was a lot of discussion around "Okay, we know you guys can do everything for us, but we don't think that that's what we want to do." And I said, "Selfishly we'd love to sell you everything, but we understand as a company that we need to work with other systems."

So API richness is foundational to what we do. Because we know we're going to be taking and giving information in this next world that we're evolving to in retail.

AI talk naturally spills into cloud talk. As in: can you take advantage of AI tools and crunch third party data if your ERP system is on-premise? And: are retailers happy with the cloud functionality for their industry? Tiffan sees a customer change here too:

I've only been with Infor about three and a half years now, but the tide has turned. The first year, it was "Cloud? Not sure". Now we hear a lot more "Cloud first". They're coming in and there's not even a question.

Yes, that applies to mission critical retail systems:

That, to me, is a big deal. Because especially when you think about things like POS, warehouse management, those things are high risk areas. People are now way more open to it.

ERP vendors at NRF told me their net new retail customers were predominately cloud. But what about the on-premise install base? Tiffan:

From the install base, I hear mixed things. Sometimes there's a little bit of an "If it ain't broke don't fix it," type of mentality. But then, I think we're getting into more conversations to plan for cloud.

Another reason for sticking with on-premise: the problematic lure of code customization.

People realize the cloud is in the future, but they also don't want to go from a highly modified solution straight to a vanilla solution in the cloud overnight. So they're starting to plan away their customizations. They start to become more vanilla, if you will, so that they can move to the cloud.

But what flavor of vanilla? Retailers don't want a vanilla flavor that lacks in retail nuance. Tiffan:

We've got several of our solutions that we were just demoing to a UK company a minute ago. We were showing him all this stuff, and he goes, "What happens if I don't need this for my retail operation, do I really need that?" And we said, "Those fields are just configurations. Hide them or move them or reconfigure the screen."

Customers respond to the blurring of e-commerce and storefronts

Let's face it: every major ERP vendor has a big NRF presence, letting attendees know they have the keys to modern retail. So, Tiffan and Rowe, what sets Infor apart from the other players? Rowe:

I think it gets back to our design principles, which were cloud first. Many of our solutions we don't even sell on premise.

Infor believes its Hook & Loop internal design presence results in a superior UX. But they also believe design changes culture. Rowe:

That whole group, it just changes the culture of the company and the way that we approach the solution. And then finally, that last mile functionality, and then the data science embedded in it. Our CEO Charles Phillips went out and targeted from the retail group, acquiring a company called Predictix that really was doing machine learning, forecasting and AI before it was popular in retail.

One of the biggest trends of NRF 2019 is the revenge of the storefront. Or, to put it more accurately, the blurring of the lines between digital and storefront. For most retailers, the two are getting mashed up, which creates new opportunities but also analytics challenges (e.g. attributing a sale across digital and physical touch points).

I talked with Tiffan and Rowe about how this is playing out for Infor retail, given that retail is an umbrella for a range of verticals and micro-verticals. Tiffan sees this convergence from manufacturing to storefronts impacting traditional retailers, including some Infor M3 manufacturing customers that want to roll out stores. So Infor has grocers interested in CloudSuite Food and Beverage, which has a lot of M3 in its core, but has been surrounded by food and beverage capabilities.

I always like to force vendors to pick their favorite customer story. No vendor wants to cite one customer at the omission of another. Tiffan mentioned Carolina Herrera, an M3 customer that recently selected Infor Retail CloudSuite and Infor GT Nexus for their retail operations, which span 800 stores and 50 countries. Tiffan:

They're talking about completely transforming their business. They have added on our order management solution. They're also using our demand management suite... Literally the entire planning supply chain is moving with us. So they're there.

This "massive transformation" includes a pending e-commerce launch in the U.S., running on Infor's commerce network:

It's a big initiative for them; they see a lot of growth ahead.

Rowe adds:

This is a great example of that shift, where it's not just moving solutions to the cloud, it's truly digital transformation, talking critical mass and data science and - what will I get from the cloud?

I'll look to get an update on this at Inforum. Tracking the progress of these kinds of go-lives is crucial - if we want to understand how retail change happens.

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