Industry expert Graham Opie discusses how retailers' mobile IT strategy and execution stacks up compared to other industries for enhancing business efficiency as well as customer propositions
The retail sector is leading the way in creating individual customer experiences, bringing together shoppers, mobile technologies and data, taking the individual’s experience away from the transactional towards multi-layered connected retail and 'me-tailing,' according to Graham Opie, director of UK-based market research specialist Vanson Bourne
"The scale of the mobilisation of retail, as well as other areas of the UK economy such as banking and finance, professional services and industry’s daily operations is startling," Opie declared. One analyst group estimates that connected retail will influence 44% of retail sales by 2016.
But Opie warned: "While it is new mobile technology strategies that will underpin the way that retail – and other markets – satisfy customers’ needs, this wave of IT innovation could be so disruptive that senior management might have to be careful what it wishes for.
"Retail senior executives might soon be in very good company, being forced to re-think who in their organisation actually owns the task of harnessing mobile IT strategies to transform service capabilities."
A tidal wave of mobilisation
To try to understand this fast-changing picture, Vanson Bourne recently surveyed UK companies’ commitment to mobile technology strategies and the capabilities they want from them, taking in IT decision-makers in 200 enterprises and small firms across four different markets – retail/transport/logistics, business and professional services, financial services and insurance, and manufacturing.
Unsurprisingly, mobilisation emerged not so much a trend, as a tidal wave. Nearly all interviewees (97%) were implementing at least one of four mobile strategy categories: mobile websites for customers, smart devices to help employees’ remote working, developing mobile commerce applications for customers, and developing mobile applications without m-commerce capabilities.
Opie commented: "Retail’s focus on the customer continues to define the way it mobilises its data and its staff." An overwhelming 89% of retail interviewees said their mobile strategies were customer-centric, against the survey average of 73%.
Retail also led the field in prioritising technology for customers in other ways. Although businesses’ top priority for mobile IT across the four sectors was ‘mobilising the workforce’ (75% of interviewees) this ‘employee productivity’ thinking is effectively reversed when we look at retail alone, where 73% said their top priority for mobile IT is ‘implementing mobile website optimisation’.
"When we assessed the completeness of companies’ mobile vision, we applied three main categorisations for firms’ mobile strategies: ‘customer-centric,’ ‘balanced’ and ‘employee-centric,’" continued Opie. Unsurprisingly, retail interviewees had the highest scores for ‘customer centric’ strategies – well ahead of the survey as a whole.
The effect of mobile on enterprise IT
(The influence of mobile strategies on corporate IT infrastructure is borne out by separate research that the research firm conducted in 2013. For example, it found that around 20% of organisations have made changes to data management structure through mobility strategies. Another 41% plan such changes in the next year).
"And, as stores seek to link customer data with information-seeking and purchase phases to deliver individual customer experiences, so the retail industry is spending the most of the four market studied on improving underlying IT network and data management capabilities to cope with the big data generated," he added.
"But the retail market’s strongly customer-centric nature means that it lags behind the other sectors in remote working plans – only 64% have implemented this strategy against a survey average of 75%. UK retailers and logistics firms primarily need employees in stores or supply chain facilities." This, Opie pointed out, contrasts markedly with business services and financial services markets, which still thirst for flexible ‘knowledge workers’ that can operate beyond company boundaries.
Not the IT department’s priority
The most far-reaching finding of the mobile strategy study, however, was the changing way that organisations develop and implement their mobile technology strategies. Surprisingly, only 51% of respondents regarded mobile strategies as a priority. And this fell to only 43% among retail sector interviewees.
"Is the CIO [chief information officer], the organisation’s technology orchestrator, being usurped by different sales, marketing and digital functions’ use of technology to support new customer engagement activities?" Opie questioned. "Last year, a technology industry analyst group predicted that by 2017, the CIO would be outspent on technology by other departments. In retail, will this trend be realised by the CMO [chief marketing officer] or head of customer engagement taking control of rolling out mobile apps and personalised shopping?
'And as technology delivers an ‘internet of things’ with sensors in every product and piece of supply chain equipment as well as all-pervasive mobile applications and staff equipped with smart devices and body-worn equipment, is IT effectively beyond one department’s control anyway?"
Opie added that UK retailers are lifting the gloom over the UK High Street by engineering a quiet revolution in personalised shopping. "How ironic it would be if, as this transformation takes place, UK retail were to become one more market where the IT director’s role is split into separate customer-focused digital specialists and back office infrastructure experts," he concluded.