‘Adaptive retail’ is a buzzy new term. So what does it mean?

The new shorthand for an integrated omnichannel approach isn’t the first attempt at summarizing a long-held goal among retailers.
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· 4 min read

In 2003, Nikki Baird was working as a consultant for Best Buy, and the electronics retailer was trying to figure out how to engage its customers at every possible touch point, from call centers and stores to just-then emerging e-commerce channels.

The company called this approach “customer centricity,” according to Baird, and in her opinion, it was an early version of a more newly minted buzzword among retailers: adaptive retail.

“Consumers change all the time, and they change at a speed that far outpaces retailers’ ability to keep up,” Baird, who is currently VP of strategy at Aptos Retail, told Retail Brew. “So that idea of being adaptive, I think, is a valid concept.”

Just last month at the Consumer Electronics Show, Walmart used the term to describe a companywide initiative to improve customer experience and integrate new technologies.

“While omnichannel retail has been around for decades, this new type of retail—adaptive retail—takes it a step further,” Suresh Kumar, global chief technology officer and chief development officer at Walmart, said in a news release. “It’s retail that is not only e-commerce or in-store, but a single, unified retail experience that seamlessly blends the best aspects of all channels.”

But Walmart’s use of “adaptive retail” is also to some degree idiosyncratic, in part because other popular terms, such as omnichannel and unified commerce, describe similar ideas. As of last year, the latter was arguably the consensus label among retailers and industry leaders.

New labels, old ideas: “Physical, digital, social all need to merge together into a cohesive experience end to end and it takes you from couch to store and back,” Ray Marciano, retail lead for Accenture Song, a marketing and data platform, told Retail Brew. “In the industry, that’s called unified commerce. That is the buzzword that people have been taught, and that was really launched at NRF last year.”

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In Marciano’s view, “adaptive retail” describes a more narrow set of ideas focused on improving the digital shopping experience with new technologies such as augmented reality, whereas Walmart’s usage is just a new label for unified commerce. “Every year, we come up with a new buzzword to talk about the same thing,” he said.

He added that this constant rhetorical reinvention isn’t always a good thing: “I think as an industry, we sort of need to align on a word and what it means, and I’m super comfortable with unified commerce. I think it’s a great word for what we’re trying to do.”

Baird is more ambivalent: “Could this be what’s next? Personally, I wouldn’t object to that necessarily,” although she also sees subtle differences between the terms: Adaptive retail, she said, better describes a process, while unified commerce is more like an end goal.

Concept to execution: Regardless of the label that the industry attaches to this process, Marciano stressed that “retail is at a bit of an existential moment right now” in terms of needing to quickly adopt technological and organizational changes.

About 14 months ago, he explained, retailers were testing out new technologies, but they were adopting them more gradually. This trend has started changing with the spread of AI, which has made it easier for retailers to more speedily integrate their back-end technology and data.

Going forward, Marciano said there are three things retailers must solve: 1) stitching data sources together rather than leaving them in silos; 2) making sure that data and technology are “composable,” as in capable of being tweaked and adjusted; and 3) implementing organizational changes to make companies more “multidisciplinary” to handle these other changes.

“We’re gonna have to start moving, and moving aggressively,” he said.

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Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.