One of the biggest challenges confronting retailers today is ensuring convergence between customers\u2019 traditional in-store shopping experience and their digital journey, thereby delivering a seamless customer experience (CX).\n\nFor brick-and-mortar stores, legacy technologies often make migrating online difficult. Over time, as they explore online opportunities, traditional retailers often find it challenging to unravel all they have built and imagine their technology stack afresh.\n\nHere, new-breed of players such as New Delhi-based Hippo Stores have a distinct advantage, providing a prime example of how retailers can rethink both business and technology in service of omnichannel transformations.\n\n\u201cWe are India\u2019s first omnichannel construction retailer offering the largest and widest range of building materials under one platform,\u201d says Ranjit Satyanath, CTO of Hippo Stores. \u201cOur primary proposition to the customers is that they can get all genuine product categories in one destination. A digital-first, born-in-the-cloud company, Hippo Stores is focusing on using technology to rapidly build and optimize value in the entire building material value chain.\u201d\n\nThe one-stop-shop for construction materials, including steel, cement, bricks, hardware, paint, tiles, electricals, and sanitaryware, caters to both professional construction companies and individual consumers. Hippo Stores opened its first outlet in New Delhi in 2021. It has since expanded to Noida and Chandigarh and plans to ramp up the number of stores to double digits by the end of this year.\n\n\u201cMost traditional retailers believe online will be a small percentage of their overall business and they shouldn\u2019t disturb what they are already doing,\u201d Satyanath says. \u201cThis approach of not disturbing status quo leads to building up of legacy online too. As a result, business and technology process at the physical and online stores never really merge. So, even though the same set of customers come online and in store, they get different experiences because of difference in the technology stacks.\u201d\n\nTo avoid this trap, Satyanath\u2019s team at Hippo Stores has built a common technology stack to power both its online and brick-and-mortar stores. Such a technology strategy has provided the much-needed agility beyond just elevating customer experience and reducing costs.\n\nBuilding an omnichannel stack from scratch\n\nWhen Satyanath joined Hippo Stores in 2020, he had the advantage of not having any legacy technology, and made the most of it. \u201cWe were starting from scratch and could leverage modern technology. There was also clarity that we would own everything that was customer facing. We saw companies that built their technology IP quickly pivot their business models during the pandemic. To gain agility, we had to build technology in-house. Whatever little technology we bought, it was done with much thought,\u201d he says.\n\nFor instance, Satyanath deployed SAP HANA because \u201cthere was no strategic advantage to be had in building our own ERP,\u201d he says.\n\nInstead, Satyanath focused on customer-facing solutions, creating an engineering team that \u201cis now around 50 people strong,\u201d to build a range of products, \u201cincluding the most critical technology piece \u2014 the ecommerce platform,\u201d he says.\n\nWhen the online ecommerce application was complete in 2020, it could enroll customers and ingest products and prices from downstream applications. But the in-store experience relied on separate tech.\n\n\u201cAs a stop-gap arrangement, we were using a subscription-based POS solution for our store. However, it was time consuming and expensive to build our custom features on top of it,\u201d he says. \u201cOnce the online solution stabilized, we decided to build the store solution also on top of it for the cashier to use.\u201d\n\nThe team that built the solution consisted of engineers with strong skills in Ruby, Node, React, and DevOps. The MVP was completed in around four months.\n\n\u201cAs we built it on top of our online commerce application, we reduced a lot of engineering build time. The store commerce solution has common functionalities such as pricing, customer registration process, and promotions engine that makes for very simple manageability,\u201d says Satyanath, who calls the new solution \u2018Unified Commerce\u2019 as it unifies both online and in-store retail functionality, offering a channel-agnostic and uniform customer experience.\n\nThe entire tech stack is deployed on public cloud and is based on cloud-native microservices architecture. The commerce application has a headless architecture, which decouples the frontend presentation layer from the backend infrastructure (such as security, pricing, etc). This decoupled approach gives Hippo Stores more control over the customer experience as it leverages APIs for customer promotions, refunds, and wallets to ensure a consistent and personalized CX, and it enables the company to provide its online customers a self-service interface and its cashiers a POS interface, both backed by the same backend.\n\n\u201cThe entire commerce application, regardless of the channel, sits on a single platform. The underlying technology, except the user interface, is the same,\u201d says Satyanath, who had to take care of several other aspects while building the ecommerce solution. For example, if the company was offering a 10% discount in store, it had to be applicable online too. Similarly, if a customer was enrolled online, he or she should not have to be enrolled again in the store. Just as in online shopping, returns, cancellations, and refunds had to be enabled in the solution deployed at the store.\n\n\u201cThese are the unique advantages that our solution has \u2014 a completely integrated yet different solution,\u201d he says. The solution was rolled out first to the store in New Delhi in August and subsequently to the other two stores.\n\n\u201cThe challenges we faced were primarily around prioritising requirements, but we managed it by working in close partnership with other business stakeholders. While functionality is one part of the solution, I strongly suggest investing in a good QA team and invest in strong infosec best practices,\u201d says Satyanath.\n\nEmpowering business agility\n\nWith its unified commerce platform in place, Hippo Stores can react faster to business changes. \u201cFor example, if we must add payment options for our customers, it is now easier. In an off-the-shelf solution, it would have been a long process to do so. With our own product, it is just a couple of weeks, and we are done with it,\u201d says Satyanath.\n\nThe company can also develop new features quickly. \u201cCredit-based sales, for instance, is something a typical POS won\u2019t have but since we have both B2B and B2C customers, we need to provide for credit-based sales. We also allow payment by cheque, another feature that a POS doesn\u2019t have. Customers can pay by cheque, their inventory will get reserved. The system will automatically check when the payment has been made and ship out goods to the customers. All this is automated. An off-the-shelf solution would have taken huge amount of time to develop these capabilities, but we are building new functionalities across our platforms, and nothing takes more than two weeks,\u201d he says.\n\nHippo Stores is now pivoting into a new model of business. \u201cWe are now taking the franchisee route with the first such store coming up in Ludhiana. As the technology is fully developed by us and under our control, we can quickly make the changes for franchisee in our systems and are ready to go live,\u201d says Satyanath.\n\nThe new solution has also elevated CX for the company. \u201cWe offer the capability that a customer can put items in the cart while shopping online and then check out in the store through the cashier,\u201d he says.\n\nHippo Stores was paying a significant amount annually in subscription fees for its off-the shelf POS solution it was using in the store, which would have gone up with the addition of new licenses with each new store. \u201cThe fact that we saved some money in subscription is the icing on the cake,\u201d he says.