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When it comes to utilizing digital tools to improve the customer experience, even the biggest and most progressive retail organizations have challenges.

That much was evident at the recent Adobe Summit in Las Vegas, as several leading retailers described challenges they've faced as well as the progress they've made.

Albertsons Companies, one of the nation's largest food retailers, was doing e-commerce and grocery delivery in the 1990s, but the company did not modernize and keep up with the times as much as they should have as technological evolved, said Paul Johnson, the company's senior director of platform product management, during a panel talk.

In 2018, Albertsons focused on unifying the digital experience and expanding e-commerce and loyalty, and having foundational tools such as search, chat and recommendation, Johnson recalled.

In 2019, it plans to make seamless shopping a reality, expanding and enhancing marketing and focusing on the customer promise and will consider new business models.

Albertsons confronted a host of technology issues related to digital transformation to improve the customer experience, shared Johnson, as there were 21 different web experiences, search crashed once a month, there was no common CMS platform, APIs were limited and the tech stack was complex.

Data quality issues

On the data side, the company lacked a way to target and experiment, he said, as data was not trustworthy for pre and post analysis, and there was no instrumentation for technical data.

"If we couldn't get the data, or couldn't trust the data, we certainly couldn't do things like experimentation and target," Johnson said.

"Digital for us means digital across all the different ways a shopper wants to shop," he said. This includes loyalty, coupons and offers, delivery, drive up and go, and order ahead, encompassing 21 different web experiences and 42 mobile apps for all the different Albertsons' supermarket brands.

Rebuilding teams

Over the past year and a half, the grocer has been rebuilding teams that focus on customer experience. There used to be monolithic engineering teams and project teams focused on disparate parts of the customer experience. It went and built 15 product teams to focus on specific customer problems.

It unified the design language to unify the design across all the brands, he said, and also integrated loyalty with e-commerce.

"If we tried to tackle all of this at once, we certainly wouldn't be on the stage right now talking to you," he said. "Bite size releases were key to unifying the experience over time."

It was also necessary to rethink the way teams used tools for collaboration.

Keeping the teams motivated became a leadership priority. Team members are excited at the outset, but problems arise, requiring leaders to remain calm.

"It also meant celebrating wins, even the small ones," he said.

At one point the company enlisted a transformation coach to audit the teams and tell them how they were doing. They were eventually able to create a road map to introduce product delivery in "iterative" ways and prioritize backlogs based on user value.

The key takeaways of the digital transformation include aligning the company teams, being data-centric to drive better customer and digital experiences, and leveraging multiple solutions across the Adobe stack for impactful experiences, Johnson said.

Data centric approach

Co-Presenter Angel Singh, Albertsons' director of analytics and experimentation, addressed the need to be data centric. She reviewed the KPIs that the teams need to measure.

"One thing to understand is the tests that you run are kind of unsexy," she said. "Some of those most impactful changes aren't sexy, but they're needed."

KPIs for Albertsons include total traffic, orders and conversion rates, e-commerce visits, cart adds, coupon clips per visit, loyalty registration, weekly ad utilization, time spent on the site, bounce rate and checkout completion percentage.

The teams evaluate the KPIs as "looking good," "unclear" or "concerning," she said.

It is also necessary to recheck data repeatedly to ensure its accuracy, Singh said. She suggested cross training the teams on the tools being used.

The leader must help the team understand why changes occur in KPI performance. "As a leadership team, you have to create a culture of experimentation and measurement," she said. This is often scary to people. "If you don't try and you don't experiment, you never learn," she said.

"A flat (result) or something that didn't work actually proves out that is not the right direction you should go," she said.

Singh said there is a widespread fallacy that you can't be data centric and customer driven. "I think data is what powers your customer experiences," she said.

In addition, build a road map for your goals. The road map should be realistic about project adoption and maturity, she said. Things happen along the way — budgets can change, people can leave, a tool malfunctions. It is necessary to keep moving toward the goal and keep team members aligned, said Johnson and Singh.