Global software company ThoughtWorks has embarked on a number of innovative retail projects of late, including work with leading grocers Tesco, The Co-operative Group Food and Morrisons.

Essential Retail caught up with Mark Collin, head of retail for at ThoughtWorks' European business, to find out the latest.

Tell us about what you do in the retail space…

"Quite simply, drive innovation faster. Our sweet spot is tackling the hard stuff and also the most opportune for our clients. Last year when we attended NRF for the first time as a company we were overwhelmed with interest, I think the main reason being is that with an agile DNA we know what responsive, speed to market, innovation and amazing customer experience is about. There are not many companies out there that have the capabilities we are fortunate to have. So whether we are launching new digital, mobile, marketplace or omnichannel propositions we are totally focused on the end customer and delivering value to them as early and as often as possible. We see other industries 'copying' the retail philosophy too so travel, insurance, banking industries are all trying to develop there retail capabilities to. It is great to work with industry leaders like The Gap, Trainline, Compare the Market,, JD Sports, etc and also help raise the bar for some of the large more traditional retailers too. This year alone we completed large engagements with Morrisons, The Co-op and Tesco."

The internal logistics work you've done with Morrisons sounds interesting. What does that relationship entail?

"We started work with Morrisons on the order pad project in 2012 and went live four months later with the first store running their on-shelf availability and order process. The key challenge was to move an entirely paper-based process on to a digital platform that would not only meet the needs of store staff but create a device independent capability to keep introducing new applications that improve the running of the store. By taking a minimum viable product  approach we got the solution out early, reduced wasted development and functionality that packages tend to bring and were able to build the right thing that would deliver significant cost saving. The cost saving was not just realised in the project cost itself but also in the running of the ordering process. The Order Pad is now live in nearly 500 stores and will complete roll out early in 2014."

How should retailers be setting themselves up to be successful in the multichannel retail environment?

"Focus on the customer can sound trite and obvious, but if you really mean it and you really have your teams work in this way you give the customer what they want and you reduce the time to market in the process. Many of our engagements are not just about delivering the software to provide a great multichannel experience but enabling our clients to work in 'product teams' by this we mean have cross functional teams that can take the whole idea or proposition from start to finish. Things get done faster this way, it is more enjoyable for the team and is very repeatable. So once you are set up you are in good shape to continuously deliver in this way.

"It is really temping to want to satisfy everything and there is so much to do to keep up with the continued demands and high expectations from customers. You also have to look hard inside and assess whether continuing to patchwork and sticking plaster your business is really going to be effective to support a modern retail experience. I have talked about some trends we are seeing below which we think are important to support this."

What are the key areas of focus for ThoughtWorks in the year ahead?

"As we have for the past 20 years we strive to lead the industry in technology and organisation evolution. We have over 60 books published on subjects ranging from continuous delivery, agile experience design, agile analytics to adaptive leadership. We will continue to support our clients' ambitious missions and focus on making them successful. A big part of this will be continuing to expand our global retail practice. We founded this only two years ago and have seen 100% growth year on year, we want to keep on doing the right thing, innovating, disrupting, pushing the industry to be more effective. Hiring is a challenge at this rate of growth, especially when we are ranked globally in the top ten hardest interview processes. But we keep that bar intentionally high and just keep moving to new locations, going far and wide to find the best talent. We opened our 28th office this year in Quito, Ecuador, we will have a continued focus on global south which is also part of our social impact goal to better humanity using the very same skills and technologies that we do to support our commercial clients. We find frugal innovation along the way. Social justice and social impact accounts for nearly a third of our work globally, this will always be part of any growth ambitions, it is who we are."

What do you think will be the key trends in retail technology over the coming 12 months?

  • (Lean) Start up/Start Over – we are seeing an emerging trend of retailers who maintain a BAU position whilst building their new business off to the side. Natural Markets Food Group will be speaking about this at NRF. In summary many retailers are finding their evolved bricks and mortar plus online model too cumbersome to support a real omnichannel experience. So they are simply starting up or over.
  • Marketplace – for those retailers who have a mature eCommerce business, the threat of Amazon has become just too great so we are seeing both a desire to move from pure-play eCommerce to more marketplace based retailing, essentially bringing buyers and sellers together around their core retail segment. There are also a lot of great start-ups popping up who are set up from day one to operate this way. This year we worked with Equipment Street and got their marketplace up and running in eight weeks.
  • Mobile – not so much a key trend anymore but a must have. Over 50% of all of our projects globally now have either mobile first or significant mobile capability plans. Ebay quote to achieve over $1 billion just from mobile and tablet devices this year. It is the same in many industries, the work we did with proves this, not only did they increase conversion by a huge margin but they found new business and opportunity models. And with a whole bunch of cheap tablet devices hitting the market this Christmas, ignore at your peril!
  • International Expansion – it is been top of list for many retailers for the past five years now, but with the growth in the Asia markets, particularly for high end and luxury retail brands it will continue to grow. Some markets have slowed down such as Japan but others replace them. South-east Asia seems to be the new rising start. China is still steady.
  • Time to Value – we are already seeing a major focus from  executives, the board, CMOs, CIOs who completely recognise that six to 12 month, even three-month release cycles are just not acceptable. Our model of continuous delivery-continuous design is intended to move companies to a position where they could release software hundreds of times a day, reliably or on demand which allows much greater flexibility to A/B test, iterate and roll back if necessary or simply fail fast. For many years we have promoted evolutionary architecture as sound approach to support a responsive organisation.
  • Phygital – made up – yes, but it will become a necessary reality that retailers have to find ways to subtly and seamlessly incorporate digital into a store experience and not just for technology sake or as a gimmick but to tackle core retailing issues like real time inventory, faster checkout, everything in my pocket (mobile – payment, loyalty, receipts, rewards, etc). The behind the scenes analytics opportunities are the significant side benefit to a customer experience premised on digital.

You're a confirmed exhibitor at RBTE 2014. How do you plan to use the show?

"We sent some folks along to RBTE last year and heard really good things, after NRF in New York this will be our biggest investment in the Europe Retail exhibition space. We are speaking at the conference with the Co-operative Group Food about their omnichannel journey so for us this is a chance to speak about the great innovative approaches we have honed, our clients successes and also to see what other innovative companies are out there to work with. We are really looking forward to it." 

ThoughtWorks will be on stand 279 at RBTE 2014, which takes place at London's Earls Court between 11-12 March.

Collin and Dane Stanley, group head of digital and social media at The Co-operative, will be presenting a conference session at RBTE on ‘Preparing for an Omnichannel Future at the Co-operative Retail Group’.