Microsoft's Shelley Bransten on the future of retail

The themes that will shape retail in 2020
Sr. Director, Content Strategy
December 18, 2019
Shelley Bransten, Microsoft, Headshot
Shelley Bransten, worldwide corporate VP of retail and consumer goods industries at Microsoft, will speak at NRF 2020 Vision: Retail's Big Show.

With more than 20 years of retail experience that includes stints at The Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy, Shelley Bransten has been a pioneer and leader in retail's digital evolution for decades. After joining Microsoft as worldwide corporate vice president of retail and consumer goods industries in 2018, her perspective on the future of the industry has broadened even further. Ahead of her appearance at NRF 2020 Vision: Retail's Big Show, where she'll be speaking about sustainability, we asked Bransten about the near and far future of the industry, the tech investments retailers can't put off, and what she's learned since joining Microsoft.

Looking ahead, what do you think the top themes in the retail industry will be in 2020? 

My top 3 themes:

  1. Clickstream to Brickstream: Transforming the store by bringing the best of digital and in-store together – consumers expect any engagement with a retailer to be seamless.
  2. AI drives ROI: AI is going to be a big one again especially when we think about that seamless experience and being able to personalize products, promotions and experiences.
  3. Last click to last mile: A laser focus on last-mile delivery to meet the consumer demand for speed and transparency.

I’m also going to be delivering a Big Ideas session at NRF 2020 with H&M focused on sustainability. I think 2020 is going to be a breakout year for sustainability in retail because consumers are demanding it. We’re going to hear more about how retailers and brands are stepping-up and embracing sustainability like never before; new concepts and startups who are putting more established players to shame and of course technology and the role it can play in enabling the industry to be more sustainable.  

What are the most impactful technologies that retailers need to lean into to be successful now and in the future?

Retailers will need to lean in on technologies that enable them to take charge of the following five strategic control points:

Learn more at NRF 2020

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella will deliver the opening keynote at NRF 2020 Vision: Retail's Big Show. Register for the event, held in New York City, Jan. 12-14.

  1. Data & AI: AI-driven intelligence across the customer’s ecosystem is democratized and cross-industry data pools and digital feedback loops get created
  2. Stores and advertising: Stores as experience centers, distribution nodes, and digital platforms will drive evolved customer experiences, space utilization innovation, and new revenue streams from instore advertising. 
  3. Open logistics platform: Highly automated, AI-driven decentralized multi-node fulfillment networks will co-locate inventory close to customers to reduce time, cost, and carbon footprint.
  4. AI-enabled workforce: As labor intensive processes get automated and productivity is driven by data and robotics, employees will need new skills, new tools and a growth mindset.
  5. Commerce anywhere: eComm becomes “aComm”, as any seller can engage and transact with any customer anywhere at any time with an experience that “wows” them.

What do you think the retail industry’s biggest challenge is right now?

Old habits die hard. The mandate to transform and innovate with margin pressure is a big challenge. Competing with cloud native, e-commerce companies is non-trivial. Even though I work in technology, many retailers’ first questions to me are, “How should we organize? What are the roles of the future? What are the no regrets innovation bets?” Unfortunately, there are no crystal balls or sure bets and it’s hard when budgets are the same and organizationally the mentality has not shifted to models of the future

The next generation of consumers expect personalization at an unprecedented scale.

Shelley Bransten, Microsoft

Consumers in the driving seat is another big challenge. It requires understanding and moving at the pace to meet the consumer of the future, and really getting to grips with where those consumers are going and what they expect. Some things will be familiar, some pretty cool and others just downright creepy. The next generation of consumers expect personalization at an unprecedented scale. They want every experience to be enhanced based on learnings from their previous interactions. Tastes and preferences are no longer declared but learned in real time through the “digital exhaust” they create as they navigate their virtual and physical worlds. That’s going to put massive pressure on retailers and the technology they have in place today.

You’ve had a lot of experience and expertise in retail, but what’s something you’ve learned about the industry or a new perspective that you’ve gained since joining Microsoft?

I have worked as the buyer of CRM, e-commerce and loyalty technologies at the Gap, and CRM at Salesforce. Front of the house retailing as we used to say.  I grew up in a world where “front of the house” and “back of the house” retailing was separate. Now, supply chain, distribution and robotics are front of the house capabilities in many respects. The consumer of the future wants to know where products were sourced, what were the working conditions like, what was the carbon footprint to get products to their home. I’ve learned so much about this at Microsoft working with some incredible customers from across the globe. Supply chain and logistics are increasingly becoming a part of the consumer experience. I didn’t know much about blockchain or IoT before I came to Microsoft and now, I’m seeing major customers like Starbucks leverage those technologies at scale.

What excites you most about the future of retail?

We’re at an inflection point unlike any other I’ve seen in my 20+ years in the industry. I just got back from a trip to China and was amazed with the speed, innovation and level of connectedness at scale. We have so much room to learn as we watch how different markets reimagine retail.

There’s just so much opportunity to get closer to the customer, to reimagine stores, leverage some truly incredible technology and just help retailers to transform. Because I spent my formative career years at Gap, I may be biased about physical stores and what they will become — experience centers, health care delivery vehicles, distribution nodes, media vehicles. We can’t even really imagine where it’s all going. It’s an exciting time for retail, and I’m personally optimistic about the future of the industry.

Want to hear more from Bransten? Don't miss her sessions at NRF 2020 Vision focusing on sustainability and how women are advancing sustainable development. Learn more and register for the event.

More on NRF 2020 Vision

NRF 2020: Retail’s Big Show
Building a retail empire starts in the empire city. Find your vision at NRF 2020.
Read more
How Cotopaxi creates superfans through sustainability
Retail Gets Real episode 162: Manifesting mission through products and business practices.
Read more
Ensuring retail jobs are good jobs
Retail Gets Real episode 161: Author Zeynep Ton on how to follow the playbook of some of the best retail companies.
Read more