Comparing responses from 2021 and this year indicates how investing in technology solutions and shifting focus to retain — as well as attract — customers are top of mind, which is why IRX and eDX's agenda answers these concerns

What is your business's primary challenge in the next two years? This puzzler was posed to everyone who registered for IRX (InternetRetailing Expo) and eDX (eDelivery Expo) over the past few years. 

The responses, which helped shape the agenda for the upcoming edition, held at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, indicate how things have evolved — or not, in some cases — for the retail industry in the last two years. And to those looking for answers, registration is still open for the free, two-day event on the 24th & 25th of May.

The data shows that in 2021, the top three challenges were “acquiring new customers” (41%), “brand awareness” (26%), and “entering new markets” (14%). Two years later, on the eve of the 2023 event, the first two priorities remain in the same position but with a lower percentage: 26% and 22%, respectively. 

Meanwhile, “entering new markets” in 2023 has garnered only 9% of the votes, below “investing/refreshing technology” (14%), and customer retention, which at 11% is over twice as much as the 2021 figure (5%).

Clearly, post-pandemic, consumer trends are evolving, and those operating in this space must elevate their digital retail offering or miss out. This transformation is reflected in the content at IRX and eDX. Subjects in this year's programme include personalisation, digital marketing strategies, customer experience, streamlining backend operations, supply-chain optimisation, and much more.

What, though, do the research findings reveal? First, in 2021, there was a high degree of panic for retailers. The lockdown-induced shuttering of shops forced consumers online and, as retailers scrambled to either establish or improve their online stores, attracting customers was business-critical. Connected to this point, as businesses set up shop online, they realised — possibly for the first time — that selling abroad was feasible.

Tech it out to retain customers

Of course, a business is nothing without customers, so it's no surprise that “acquiring new customers” remains the top priority for retailers in 2023. What's telling, however, is this topic is the chief concern of just over a quarter of respondents now, rather than closer to half of them. Further, there has been a move from simply generating new trade to improving repeat business.

There are other subtle changes thrown up by the comparison data. For instance, there seems to be wider acceptance across the industry that the market is saturated. Therefore, more business leaders are shifting focus to stand out in certain areas, with improved customer experience — online and offline — recognised as vital.

Hence, investing/refreshing technology — a new entry for 2023, and the third most popular answer — didn't register as a primary challenge two years ago. The explosion of generative artificial intelligence, among other nascent technologies, has led consumers and retail leaders to rethink ways of operating. ChatGPT, launched in November, could become a hugely important part of eCommerce in the near future, for example. How could — and should — retailers take advantage?

Elsewhere, Shopify and others have embraced AI and machine learning to boost personalisation. And “headless commerce” is a growing trend. This approach enables eCommerce operations to have best-in-class technology by decoupling their products and services front and back ends. Again, this ties back to the emphasis on customer retention, the idea that if your operation stands out, customers will stay loyal.

Whether you use AI or not, it is a burning issue. Indeed, according to Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google, AI will have as profound an impact on the world as electricity or fire. 

Playing with fire and broken supply chains

And yet, as Peggy Noonan, a columnist in The Wall Street Journal, wrote recently, leaders in all industries should be ambivalent about AI. She argued that so-called Big Tech companies alone must not be expected to “create the moral and ethical guardrails” and added: “We are playing with the hottest thing since the discovery of fire.”

The advent of generative AI is an example of the additional complexity of life as a retailer today compared with just two years ago. This greater complexity is shown in the more extensive variety of challenges submitted by those who have registered for this year's IRX and eDX event.

To discover how to solve the biggest challenges your business will likely face between now and 2025, sign up and join thousands of retail-industry experts at IRX and eDX in May. For example, Adam Warne, Chief Information Officer at River Island, will be presenting a session on championing the pace of change to withstand the economic landscape. Attendees will be informed by the latest industry trends and innovations, influenced by talks from over 100 thought leaders, and inspired by pioneering vendors.

IRX & eDX 2023 take place at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham on 24 & 25 May. Register — for free — here