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NRF 2014: Tech tackles omnichannel

By Retail Technology | Tuesday January 28 2014

A strong turnout for the annual US retail IT event suggests increasing demand for IT to support more complex processes that span across customer-facing channels, writes Miya Knights

It is generally accepted that the Retail Big Show held in New York by the US National Retail Federation at the beginning of every year is the first big indicator of how the technology industry will respond to retail demand, pent up by the traditional pre-Christmas lockdown on new IT spending.

In fact, the variety of new retail hardware and software innovations on show this month prompted a number of attendees to comment on how the event’s usual focus on the store environment had shifted to take account of more multichannel or omnichannel retail strategies.

While some larger retailers, like B&Q, were on hand to discuss what an omnichannel strategy that spans every customer touchpoint looks like, including online and the store, IT exhibitors were also responding to a basic, but growing retail requirement to better integrate their existing systems.

Point of sale update

Fujitsu was one of the larger IT vendors at the show with a major launch aimed at what is often one of the biggest upfront retail investments with one of the longest lifecycles: the electronic point of sale (EPoS). Fujitsu Market Place is a new modular point-of-sale (PoS) application that has a simple aim on the face of it – to integrate customer online orders and store purchases in a single transaction.

As George Lawrie, vice president and application development and delivery (AD&D) principal analyst for Forrester Research, commented on the challenge in a blog about the Fujitsu launch: “Retail AD&D professionals must contend with established categories of packaged apps for store operations, e-commerce, supply chain and loyalty. But most packages hail from the pre-digital disruption era of mono-channel retail – store or e-commerce.”

Lawrie highlighted the difficulty in charting an application upgrade and integration course that delivers on omnichannel consumer expectations, despite the incompatibility of the package data models with new use cases, such as click & collect or buy online, return instore. 

Fujitsu said its Market Place application would allow retailers to build an omnichannel view of their customers they can use to drive increased revenue without added IT cost. It achieves this by, according to the company, supporting enterprise-wide transaction and order fulfilment to deliver a joined up and consistent buying experience to customers via traditional store PoS, as well as online and mobile channels.

“I've had a sneak preview of the new Fujitsu Retail solution Market Place and I'm excited because it helps retailers to orchestrate the applications and data they already have to meet consumers’ cross-channel expectations,” added Lawrie.

Retail reaches to the cloud

Another attendee targeting retailers looking to join up operations and customer-facing channels was cloud-based business management and enterprise resource planning (ERP) software company NetSuite, which was celebrating its second year at the Retail Big Show, having debuted in 2013 following its acquisition of PoS software firm Retail Anywhere

“We’ve had a lot of successes with the mid-market,” reported Branden Jenkins, general manager for retail at NetSuite and former Retail Anywhere chief executive. “The sales cycle is faster and very receptive to our suite, as a unified system.” 

The update from Jenkins also revealed a key trend in the maturing of attitudes towards cloud-based systems among retailers. “We see lots of opportunities in the $1-billion-plus retail space and are included in most selection processes,” he continued. 

“Big retailers are recognising the opportunity upgrade their systems as well,” he added, citing NetSuite’s win last year with US giant Williams-Sonoma. “We offer the Holy Grail for omnichannel of a single system for order management. But, with our common platform that includes inventory, reporting, CRM [customer relationship management] and PoS, there’s room for investments to grow.”

Jenkins highlighted new product features designed to bring more of the digital experience customers expect online into the store. “We can offer that ‘endless aisle’ capability in a unifying, common platform,” he said. “And we’re having to conversations at a higher, more strategic level where buying ‘best of breed’ doesn’t work anymore. The speed of retailing means time is so compressed and integrating best of breed takes too long.”

He stressed: “The big piece needs to be customer-centric, in the store and online, which is easy as long as it is focused on a single system of record throughout. Get that foundation in place and customer centricity becomes possible.”

Extending mobility instore

Like NetSuite, a number of other exhibitors were focused on bringing the digital experiences developed online into the store. Jerry Rightmer, president and chief technology officer of mobile PoS software development company Starmount, suggested the best way to offer this experience was using mobile technologies. Urban Outfitters was its first major customer in the US in 2007.

“The next thing we ran into was omnichannel,” he said, “which meant leveraging inventory information across the supply chain and customer benefits across the endless aisle, so the solution now allows you to place orders into the same basket in the store as the one ordered online. It is one process flow supported by the full range of payments, including PayPal. And the software can also display a profile of the customer, purchase history or even an outfit or room design builder.”

He also commented that retailers are investing in the right infrastructure to join up channels. “Our customers have already solved foundational problems,” he said. “Most have already put store Wi-Fi in place. But mobile also impacts store processes, in as much as you have to think about where to de-tag merchandise or to keep your supply of bags. Some use carts, some want printers and some rely on email receipts, for instance.” 

Rightmer highlighted the strategic partnership announced at the show with supply chain software vendor Manhattan Associates to enable an end-to-end retail offer. “Our framework connects to existing product information and masks all the integrations. Ideally all digital assets should be in a CMS [content management system], but the reality is it’s mostly in the e-commerce system. So our framework hooks up these assets, so it can evolve over time.”

So whichever cross-channel, multichannel or omnichannel IT strategies retailers adopt this year, the constant pressure of customer expectations means they are likely to be ones that, as Rightmer says, will need to evolve over time.

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