It's true that today's mobile and digitally empowered consumers increasingly are calling the retail shots. With more information, more options, and greater expectations than ever before, they want a highly personalized and value-driven retail experience that delivers consistency of service, ease of interaction and real-time information - regardless of which or how many channels they engage with.

Alongside being open for business whenever and wherever customers want to shop, a retailer's ability to earn its customer's business and loyalty increasingly depends on knowing the customers' individual preferences - when they want to buy, what they want to buy, and what price they are willing to pay.

But that's just the start. Maximizing retail performance also depends on the ability to fine tune the balance between choice, product availability, and inventory cost - especially in fast-moving arenas like fashion retailing. And when it comes to delivering seamless cross-channel customer order management or maximizing inventory management across multiple channels, information and timing are everything.

Achieving success in today's highly connected multi-channel retail world requires tremendous agility, enabled by a dynamic operating environment. But  to "join up the operational dots" and become truly integrated is a serious technical challenge for many retailers  in terms of process and data flows - especially when it comes to integrating the spaghetti soup of systems controlling individual channel and operational functions.

To resolve the integration challenge, retailers are taking a fresh look at enterprise resource planning (ERP) as a means of gaining that all important "single version of the truth" that comes with the achievement of gaining central control of critical operations and seamless connectivity with consumers and suppliers.

Until now, ERP has had a mixed reception in the retail sector. When the first commercial ERP software packages exploded onto the market in the 1990s-promising to integrate all data and related organizational processes into a single, unified information system--ERP acquired a reputation as an unwieldy monolith that was unsuitable for retail, being inflexible, costly to implement and complex to operate.

But retailers have been missing out on a critical IT opportunity, because ERP has changed. Today's next generation out-of-the-box, retail-specific ERP solutions have evolved to become impressively scalable end-to-end retail platforms that deliver all the dynamic operational agility retailers need when it comes to generating competitive advantage.

In this ERP-connected data world, retailers are able to put the spotlight on key initiatives designed to lower costs, improve operational efficiency or drive customer frequency, value and loyalty. What's more, they can create connections with ease-across the supply chain or directly with customers across multiple channels-without having to worry about the IT infrastructure.

With the ability to tap into the huge reserves of sales data generated across all channels - such as customer demographics, sales by season, color preferences - retailers can better align products and services and even loyalty schemes to customer preferences while responding faster to changing demands. In addition, ERP makes it easy to review issues around service, price and availability and can be frequently and easily targeted to customer preferences.

Ultimately, however, ERP delivers the deep integration of the online or on-premises retail shop front to merchandising, supply chain and financial processes across the retail organization, making it possible for retailers to gain a 360 degree visibility of the consumer across every channel and take customer centricity to a new level.

-- Contributed by Dilip Popat, Global Industry Director, Retail and Distribution, Microsoft Business Solutions