(This post originally appeared on Forbes)
When you think of retail technology a few well-known names come to mind: Amazon. Shopify. PayPal. Square. But what about Microsoft?
Microsoft of course provides a lot of the back end infrastructure that helps power many retail systems. But the company’s Dynamics 365 retail product offering has struggled to gain recognition. I think that’s likely to change. Why? Because the company is shifting its retail focus to something more important: CRM.
In a report from Microsoft Dynamics World, the company last week announced that it would be renaming its former Dynamics 365 for Retail applications to a new e-commerce brand, Dynamics 365 Commerce. But this is not just a name change. It’s a direction change. By doing this Microsoft plans to offer technologies that will not only do what other popular retail systems are doing – integrating brick and mortar operations with e-commerce – but also helping its customers to better analyze what their customers are doing.
The idea is to enable its retail customers to more fully leverage artificial intelligence, data analytics and Internet of Things technologies so that they can not only improve operational efficiency and better measure what’s selling in their customers’ stores, but also more accurately determine who’s buying and how to get people to buy more.
Its Dynamics 365 Connected Store application will, according to the report, “provide insight into the retail space, helping physical retailers understand and improve the in-store experience by analyzing disparate data from video cameras and IoT sensors to providing real-time and predictive insights that help store managers and employees make better decisions.”
The application promises to “transform the customer experience-from the digital experiences that make shopping fun and rewarding to productivity and collaboration solutions that help retail employees provide outstanding customer service,” according to Microsoft. “In addition, intelligent systems provide deep insights to empower advanced decision making and personalization, delivering the fully connected commerce solution retailers need to build brand loyalty, optimize operations and supply chain efficiencies and deliver better business outcomes.”
Sounds great. But isn’t this all a little too late? Isn’t Amazon light years ahead having already launched their virtually pilot-less Amazon Go grocery stores that promises a quick way for customers to buy essential products using their mobile app and IoT sensors to monitor inventory? Aren’t e-commerce platforms like Shopify, Magento and Big Commerce already responding to their customers’ needs to marry in-store point of sale with their e-commerce websites?
Yes, these great companies and applications are further ahead of Microsoft. But no, Microsoft still isn’t late to the game. Microsoft has already forged agreements with Walmart and Kroger to host their data on its Azure cloud platform. It already counts thousands of smaller retailers as customers. But that just sets the stage for what Microsoft sees as the real opportunity: to leverage data into more sales based on customer behavior and better efficiencies.
Its Dynamics 365 Commerce applications will be all about helping its customers – from corporate analysts to store managers and associates – get quick access to their customers’ activities and then better understand how the data is reflective of their behavior. It will send alerts to employees that warn them of longer lines at checkout, inventory that may be subject to spoilage or freezers that may be suffering mechanical issues. It will suggest to store associates additional products to sell based on historical trends and buying preferences. It will offer ideas for marketing to those customers that prefer specific types of products.
This is CRM.
It’s about providing technology that can not only collect the data but also interpret that information so that managers and salespeople can take actions that will best serve their customers…and build better relationships. Aren’t Microsoft’s competitors doing this already? Here and there. But there’s a long way to go. The race for retail technology dominance is still in its early stages.
So is Microsoft too late? Not at all. In fact, the company’s CRM-focused approach may likely soon put it ahead of its more entrenched competitors.