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Doing the right thing with tech at Retail Technology Show

By Glynn Davis | Tuesday May 2 2023 | UPDATED 02.05.23

Retailers that continue to develop their propositions, innovate through the use of technology, and focus on doing the right thing for their customers, employees and the environment will be the successes of the future while others run the risk of extinction

Speaking at the Retail Technology Show in London this week Mary Portas, founder of Portas Agency, suggested: “Technology undoubtedly has the potential for destruction or creativity. What it did during Covid-19 for the community and creativity in businesses was extraordinary. What it’s done for small, innovative businesses has been incredible.”

But she warns that retailers need to think about when they use it. She advocates its use for helping businesses “do good for the environment and diversity rather than creating anxiety by pressuring people to simply buy more “stuff”. “Some businesses say we’re going to do well in the world, become part of the kindness economy,” she says citing Aesop and Patagania, which are doing well though being conscious of how they operate that does not involve wasteful consumption.In contrast, others are on a destructive path of over production and consumption.

Julia Reynolds, founder of Rey House Clothing, is very aware of the waste in the fashion industry and is using technology to investigate how to create better fitted clothes for older women by using AI and data science to scan women’s bodies. The technology will measure 300 data points and then be fed up-stream into the design and manufacturing stages.

“We need to start with the right data. We’re looking at how the automotive and boat builders do it. Strategic thinking is needed, it’s not about simply tackling operational issues. Retailers need to stop putting it down to the IT department [to solve],” she argues.

Reynolds is very much focused on collaboration for her project and this is also increasingly in the thinking of Amy McNamara, head of operations at Boohoo Group, who says the company’s increased focus on sustainability is all about working with other organisations.

“We’ve asked our customers what they want and they want sustainability but then there is also the cost side. We’re therefore trying to work with sustainable companies. We need to collaborate on this sustainability journey,” she says, highlighting that new suppliers and the carrier companies are among those it is working more closely with. The latter involves a much greater sharing of data in order to push improved efficiency and better working practices.

Data science and AI are – not surprisingly - very much on the mind of John Mildinhall, head of data science for retail, digital & technology at Marks & Spencer, who is working on many projects that utilise these increasingly powerful tools. He cites the initiatives being undertaken on intelligent sales probes that handle 250,000 forecasts to stores each week that involve looking at anomalies in the data, which has helped improve sales by 1-2%.

With AI there is much work being done on creating content and generative imagery – including photos and videos – for M&S ranges as well as potentially helping to actually design relevant products. But he says great care has to be taken in order not to put customer trust at risk.

One challenge for Mildinhall is also recognised by Paul Wilkinson, product leader at Deliveroo, who highlighted that innovation has to be “prioritised ruthlessly” because few projects ultimately succeed. He also recommends retailers give time to innovation as well as understanding whether it will genuinely benefit the wider business.

“You’ve got to give innovation space and carve out time for people to work on it…and you’ve got to stay close to the business and understand its problems. Lots of retailers set up trendy offices – and then closed them quietly. At Tesco we had our Lab on the main campus,” he says.


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