It’s hard being a retailer in the modern era. Customers can be fickle, success can often hinge on whether or not it snows in April and, perhaps more pertinently, technology is evolving the business landscape at a remarkably rapid rate.

Key questions range from how retailers can bring their stores to life in the digital age to how they filter technological knowhow down to all parts of the company? Everyone’s using social media, too, but where should retailers be investing their money in this field?

These were some of the fundamental concerns raised at the Retail Business Technology Expo’s (RBTE) 2014 Steering Committee Meeting in July, which brought together representatives from the UK and Europe’s leading retail, hospitality and leisure organisations, as well as industry analysts from the innovative technology space, to Planet Retail’s (a key partner of the RBTE) state-of-the-art offices in central London.

Senior technology, eCommerce and operations figures from the likes of Dixons Retail, Arcadia Group and Jamie’s Italian engaged in insightful debate surrounding the hot topics of the moment, generating some forward-thinking content ideas for next year’s RBTE, which is set to take place at London’s Earls Court between 11-12 March.

The multichannel matrix

“Despite the phrase having existed for some time, multichannel retail has not yet been achieved.”

Buzzwords such as “multichannel” and “omni-channel” have been part of the retail lexicon for a number of years now, but whatever you want to call the process it essentially means preparing a business on a number of customer-facing platforms and making sure each operational division links together in an effective way. In short, it’s a common sense approach to business preparedness and customer service.

In retail terms, it covers the process of bringing together a company’s in-store, online, mobile and social platforms to maintain sales and encourage customer loyalty. But as the above quote from one steering committee member suggests, there’s still much to do if retailers are successfully going to operate on a multichannel level.

A huge question for many firms – and this was a real talking point during the RBTE meeting – is how to attract online customers into stores. There are only a select few companies in the UK that have achieved consistent success with cross-channel retailing, with those doing it particularly well offering convenient click and collect systems or innovative loyalty schemes. Many retailers say they are ‘doing multichannel’, but what they actually mean is they have simply launched an eCommerce site. 

Looking inward

“A lot of retailers have little money and old IT. This is a big problem.”

While the focus on the customer is as essential to retailing as it always has been, the conversations at RBTE’s steering committee also drew attention to the importance of focusing on how technology can and should be used for internal operations, particularly in terms of approving efficiency.

As with most industries that have been configuring new systems and working out how to incorporate new social and digital platforms in recent years, retail has perhaps been slightly guilty of too much future-gazing and not paying enough attention to the here and now.

During this month’s meeting, it was clear that retailers wanted to understand the issues that are affecting them today and not be overly concerned with the issues of tomorrow. Future-proofing a business is crucial, of course, but getting the digital fundamentals right now, including internal tech systems and solutions, will provide a strong platform for companies to move with the digital times and reach technological heights in the coming years.

Retailers, it would seem, prefer to learn from other retailers – or at least companies that sell to customers in similar ways, such as leisure and hospitality firms. From the committee’s discussions it would appear that there’s no huge desire to look outside of these sectors for inspiration, but there is a huge hunger to learn from the leaders within the industry; be it at home, or from an international perspective.

It is often fruitful for retailers to see what’s going on outside their home country to gather ideas and learn about the next big thing in the industry. It was encouraging to hear how retailers are outward-looking and open-minded enough to find inspiration in the latest global trends.

Or as one committee member suggested, smaller companies are arriving on the tech scene and turning staid thought processes on their head by saying “you don’t have to do it like that anymore”. It’s this innovative thinking that is capturing the imagination of many players in the retail community.

Knowledge sharing is an essential part of what will keep the retail industry and, more specifically, the retail technology and solutions sector moving forward during a time when collaboration and inspiration are important considerations in terms of economic and business growth.

Social solutions

“How do you use social media? It’s important to have a strategy; otherwise it will not engage customers.”

Many companies rush into social media without a plan, and come unstuck once they make it beyond the initial stage of setting up a Facebook or Twitter account. The debate around the RBTE roundtable centred on the challenges facing retailers in using the copious data that social media generates for the betterment of their businesses.

One phrase put to the delegates was “actionable insight” – a term given to describe data from different sources that businesses are able to draw conclusions from. If a retailer can identify the actionable insight, it may give them a boost in safely navigating their way through the minefield of customer behaviour information now available to them.  

As the different social channels grow, how can retailers link them altogether to gain a rounded view of their customers? It was argued that retailers are “missing a big trick” if they treat the same person as three separate customers, because they are unable to distinguish whether the customer engaging with them on Linkedin is the same one they are dealing with on Twitter or via Facebook.

Another question put to delegates was: can Facebook ‘likes’ be used as a marketing tool to encourage customers to buy products? Will retailers promote product popularity on social media as a reason to purchase? There are so many avenues to consider and there is so much potential in the social channel.

Successful retailers are embracing technology and providing consumers with a joined-up multichannel approach to shopping, with convenience and e-commerce placed at the hub of their service offering, but it’s clear there isn’t one company that ticks all the front-end and back-end boxes in the digital age. There is a lot to learn and consider.

What the meeting underlined is the need for a comprehensive, end-to-end show like RBTE that covers all solutions in one place and delves into every aspect of retail because all elements of the retail operation online and in store are interconnected and need to be considered together. RBTE’s unique selling point to the industry is that its total solution offering allows retail businesses to join up their thinking and find solutions in an increasingly digitalised marketplace – something that smaller niche events cannot offer.

RBTE 2014 will address these issues and more during a two-day showcase involving the leading retailers and tech solution providers next spring. The show runs from March 11-12th 2014 at Earls Court, London.

Nick Field, RBTE Event Director, said: “The pace of change in retail is as fast as it’s ever been, driven by the emergence of new innovative technology and customers who, above everything, want convenience and superb customer service.

“RBTE’s Steering Committee Meeting in July clearly showed the UK and European retail industry is full of fresh ideas about staying relevant in the modern marketplace, and it is clearly keen to embrace change and new technologies.

“By attending RBTE 2014, where the leading players in retail technology take to the stage for two days of insightful presentations and lively panel debate, and where all the latest tech solutions providers are found under one roof, retailers can learn how to stay ahead of the crowd.”

RBTE would like to extend a huge thank you to the members of its 2014 Steering Committee for their forward-thinking approach and for offering their precious time and integral feedback. Their enthusiastic contribution showed that retailers are hungry for an event rich in fresh content, ideas and innovation.

RBTE Steering Committee members are, as follows: Ian Woosey, Senior Director, Alvarez & Marsal; Daniel Orteu, CTO, Anya Hindmarch; Bola Lawal, Retail Operations Manager, Arcadia Group; Paul Doeman, Head Of E-Commerce, Blue INC; Anna Collis, Operations Improvement Manager, Burberry; Laura Philips, Programme Manager, David Lloyd Leisure; Kash Ghedia, Technology Manager, Dixons Retail; Heath Cormack, Technology & Innovation Strategist, Freelance Consultant; Sarah Pavlou, President, International Women in Business; Marcin Korowiecki, Head of Systems Management Development, Jamie's Italian; Jane Aitken, Ecommerce Trading & Operations Manager, Jigsaw; Simon Russell, Director, Retail Operations Development, John Lewis Partnership; Graham Benson, CIO, M&M Direct; Jason Cook, Head of IT, Neal's Yard Remedies; Vicky Harris, Finance & Commercial - International Partnerships, New Look; Mark McMurtrie, Director, Payments Consultancy; Paul Martin, Managing Director, Planet Retail; Chris Hughes, Managing Director, Retail Automation Consultancy; Jevern Partridge, Professional eCommerce Leader, Ridge Solutions; Brian Kilcourse, Managing Partner, RSR Research; Jeremy Fiddler, Head of IT, Ryman; Robert Teagle, EMEA IT director, Starbucks; Alex Harling, Head of IT, W & G Foyle; Steve Heathcote, Head of Commercial Systems, Waitrose; Richard Mader, President, International Consulting & ARTS Director Emeritus.

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