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(L-R) Andrew Harrison, Steve Esom & Peter Williams

Tech rises up retail leaders' agendas

By Retail Technology | Wednesday March 12 2014

Senior executives gathered at UK trade show, Retail Business Technology Expo, to discuss the importance of IT infrastructure, Big Data and digital engagement

Retailers are only at the beginning of a journey to reshape of retail technology infrastructures in order to deliver the right experience for customers, according to a keynote session with leading retail executives yesterday.

Addressing a packed audience on the opening day of Retail Business Technology Expo in London, executives and directors of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), Domino's Pizza, Carphone Warehouse and Cineworld made it clear that technology had become a vital enabler of industry growth, both instore and online.

Moderating the session, Stephen Robertson, non-executive director at the Timpson Group and Hargreaves Lansdown, got the panel to reveal just how important digital experiences have become in facilitating the best brand experience and customer service levels.

"Making ordering [and buying products] friction-free is a really big issue for us and it is quite extraordinary how poor retailers are at making an easy customer journey," he said.

Simplifying customer journey

David Wild, chief executive office of Domino’s Pizza Group, took up the point. "If I look Ryanair versus Easyjet for instance, trying to book a flight at Easyjet online is so easy – they make it so easy for me to spend my money," he said. "Whereas if I try and book a flight to the same destination with Ryanair, invariably it's double the number of clicks. It's just not easy."

Robertson, who also previously served as British Retail Consortium director general, B&Q marketing director and Screwfix Direct chairman, added: "It does amaze me how many retailers online expect you to set up an account every time you want to buy something. Imagine if every time you went into a shop, you had to fill in a piece of paper with your name and address before you were allowed to buy."

Andrew Harrison, group chief executive officer of Carphone Warehouse, highlighted the subject of data – or 'Big Data' as the rapid analysis of multiple, large data sources has become known – as an important, emerging IT tool in the retailer's competitive arsenal.

"Big Data is a solution we all have to embrace," Harrison said, "whether it's data about what consumers are doing on a mass basis or information you have on an individual level of a customer, you can't ignore it. 

Newer businesses are so data driven that it is a war of attrition. You have to be aware of the ability to know more about your customers and how they're behaving instore, for instance."

Making operational decisions

Harrison said Carphone Warehouse had been working with Telefonica using a Big Data approach its store location strategy. "They provided fascinating insights to us about the flow of people around High Streets and where we should locate," he explained. 

"We have very sophisticated location strategies down to particular postcodes, knowing about particular footflows and dwell times. We have to use the data to make better decisions than our competitors."

Peter Williams, non-executive director at Rightmove and Cineworld, took a pragmatic stance. "A lot has been talked about data for a long time," he said. "But actually, I think it's only now that people are really beginning to use it properly. 

"Retailers are absolute masters of collecting huge amounts of data. But, historically, I think it's fair to say I don't think they've always done a tremendous amount with it. Being able to use certain parts of the data to gain foresight is an excellent idea."

Williams, who previously served as Asos senior independent director and Selfridges chief executive, also flagged how internet retailing has played a key role in the developing concept of Big Data, explaining, "You have to have some kind of personal identifier to transact" with customers. 

"When people walk into a store you have very little information about them," he added, "which is why online retailers perhaps lead the way here. But today's shopper is promiscuous -- they are not predictable. 

"So you have to be very careful how you use it. It may be good for store or warehouse strategies, for example. But when it comes to using it to second guess the consumer, I think that's a bit different."

Embracing digital natives

The panel agreed that the increasing role of technology in customer-facing operations alongside back-office processes meant there was also a growing need for more so-called "digital natives" in executive positions within retailers. 

Steve Esom, chair of Thrive and Product Chain and non-executive chairman for the BRC, said: "Many traditional retailers are struggling with this because they've organised themselves by channel and that's not really how customers interact."

"So it shouldn't be down to a particular person to integrate digital. The most successful businesses find a way of inculcating it."

Esom, who formerly served as Waitrose managing director and Marks & Spencer executive director of food, added: "What we're really taking about - whether it's instore or online - is keeping the customer experience consistent and grounded."

When asked about attitudes towards security, it was Wild (having also held senior positions at Halfords, WalMart, Tesco and RHM Foods) who issued the starkest warning. "Security is a huge issue and, as an industry, we tend to underestimate its importance. 

"I actually think it's a big opportunity for businesses outside of the retail space, for the likes of the big four [systems integrators] for instance because, apart from the reputational damage [of a data breach], it can be a criminal offence." 

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