Jan 16 2022

NRF2022: Microsoft Launches Cloud for Retail

Part of a growing bundle of industry-specific cloud offerings, Microsoft’s retail solution will help merchants better manage data and workers.

Continuing its strategy of building industry-specific capabilities into its cloud platform, Microsoft announced the availability of Microsoft Cloud for Retail at NRF 2022: Retail’s Big Show, the National Retail Federation’s annual industry event.

Microsoft has long had many major retail brands as customers of its Azure cloud platform, but the company says its new retail-specific offering would deliver merchants new capabilities, especially in the areas of data management, customer experience, supply chain and human resources.

“It’s really a response to what our retail customers have been asking for, which is to help them maximize their data, elevate their customer experience, help them build a more real-time and sustainable supply chain and empower the frontline store associate,” explains Shelley Bransten, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of global retail and consumer goods.

When it becomes generally available on Feb. 1, Cloud for Retail will join a number of existing industry-specific cloud offerings from Microsoft, including those for healthcare, financial services, manufacturing, nonprofit and others. “Microsoft is a horizontal-product company, so building industry-specific clouds has been a big push of ours,” Bransten says.

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Unifying Data Is a Critical Challenge in Retail

The new offering will make it easier for retailers to unify siloed data sets to get a more holistic view of their customers, allowing them to build more detailed profiles of individual consumers to drive more personalized shopping experiences. At the same time, merchants will also gain greater insight into their supply chains, allowing better real-time inventory management with predictive analytics.

“Retail is an industry that’s never had a shortage of data, but historically there have been systems of record and systems of engagement, and these were disconnected,” Bransten says. With respect to customers and supply chain data, she says, “it was like the two shall never meet. What’s different now is connecting that demand data with the supply data and doing it in a real-time way.”

Retailers have also sought to equip retail workers with collaboration technologies similar to what workers in corporate and home offices enjoy. Store associates have complained about a lack of tools at their disposal, according to new Microsoft research released last week. The latest Microsoft Work Trends Index found that 75 percent of retail workers think companies aren’t investing as much in technology for frontline workers as they are in customer-experience tech, Bransten said.

In response, Microsoft has integrated its Teams walkie-talkie app with many Zebra Technologies handheld computers, which are among the most commonly used mobile devices in the retail industry.

“That integration with Teams, that’s a new capability, so that on the device the frontline worker can use a lot of the capabilities that information workers take for granted,” Bransten says.

NRF 2022: Follow BizTech's coverage of Retail's Big Show.

Why Retail Enjoys ‘Digital Optimism’

Bransten argues that retail has distinguished itself from other industries during the pandemic by both its willingness to embrace digital transformation and the speed with which it has deployed new solutions. Microsoft calls this retail’s “digital optimism” — the sense within the industry that technology will help clear any hurdles.

The environment in which retailers are operating hasn’t changed very much since stores were allowed to reopen shortly after the beginning of the pandemic. Retailers are dealing with “supply chain challenges, labor challenges and increasing consumer expectations,” Bransten says, which was precisely the situation during the NRF Big Show in 2021.

“That’s definitely still the backdrop,” Bransten says. “What I’m seeing that’s really different is the speed and pace of the deployment of digital tools. Our customers, whether it’s a Walmart or a Walgreens, have gotten better at things like forecasting demand, matching demand and supply in terms of getting the right store associates to work or flexing their e-commerce muscles. We’re seeing a lot of our retail customers acting in some ways like tech companies do, in terms of adopting technology, putting it into market and being more nimble.”

Getty Images/Edwin Tan

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