UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s is collaborating with Google Cloud on machine learning for greater customer insights – in another example of a cloud partnership among major retailers.
The company is looking at building machine learning solutions on Google Cloud Platform (GCP), in association with Accenture, to ‘provide new insights on what customers want and the trends driving their eating habits’, in the words of Alan Coad, Google Cloud managing director UKI in a blog post.
While that phrasing could be construed as peculiar, the overall goal, of building stronger customer profiles and providing greater value to customers through big data crunching, is one which resonates.
Sainsbury’s analyses data from various structured and unstructured sources, and is looking to Google to clean up the data, classify it, and deliver insights in real-time. Predictive analytics models have been deployed by the supermarket chain to sense trends and adjust inventory as a result. Google Cloud’s retail page outlines a five-step process to data nirvana: scaling infrastructure, developing new applications, unifying data streams and using collaborative tools to get insights faster.
“The grocery market continues to change rapidly. We know our customers want high quality at great value and that finding innovative and distinctive products is increasingly important to them,” said Phil Jordan, group CIO of Sainsbury’s. “With the help of Google Cloud Platform, we are generating new insights into how the world eats and lives, to help us stay ahead of market trends and provide an even better shopping experience for our customers.”
“The food sector is experiencing significant, rapid disruption, and this new cloud-based insights platform will help Sainsbury’s identify trends much earlier and adapt their product assortment in a faster, more informed way – all for the benefit of customers,” added Adrian Bertschinger, managing director for retail at Accenture.
The rise in retailers partnering with the largest cloud providers is a trend which has been covered variously by this publication. In particular, the choice of cloud has frequently raised eyebrows. At the start of this year, US grocer Albertsons signed a three-year deal to make Microsoft Azure its preferred public cloud. Pharmaceutical giant Walgreens Boots Alliance signed a similar deal – albeit for seven years – in the same month.
This momentum, alongside a long-running saga last year where Walmart firmly placed its flag on terra Azure, led some to question whether top tier retailers were moving away from Amazon Web Services (AWS), the largest public cloud provider, whose parent company happens to be a rather large retailer. Indeed, according to the most recent Forbes Global 2000 list in May, Amazon surpassed Walmart as the leading retailer for the first time.
While it makes for a nice headline, this trend may be something of a red herring. AWS’ retail customers include Ocado, Under Armour and River Island. Perhaps its biggest customer is itself. Amazon had been gradually moving away from Oracle, and AWS chief executive Andy Jassy announced at the end of last year that Amazon’s consumer arm was now running the vast majority of critical system databases on AWS.
Speaking to CloudTech in April Jean Atelsek, digital economics unit analyst at 451 Research, dispelled the myth. “It’s easy to get the impression that retailers are fleeing AWS,” said Atelsek. “Microsoft’s big cloud partnership with Walmart seems to be the example that everyone wants to universalise to the entire cloud space. However since a lot of retailers also sell through/on AWS, they’re less likely than Walmart to see Amazon (and by extension AWS) as the devil.”
As the Sainsbury’s example shows, organisations across verticals are looking to utilise more mature machine learning models and techniques through the biggest cloud vendors. Even taking into account the buzzword factor, this year has seen an explosion of companies citing ML as a key factor, from media companies for content archiving (The Globe and Mail) to sporting brands for quicker insights (Formula 1), to both (NASCAR).
According to Kantar figures earlier this year, Sainsbury’s fell to third place in terms of the largest UK supermarkets, slipping behind Asda. The collaboration with Google Cloud will look to give the company a foot up; as Coad noted, the company’s vision is to ‘be the most trusted retailer’ and ‘make customers’ lives easier, by offering great quality and service at fair prices.’