As new systems and digital capability continue to evolve the way retailers run their businesses, Essential Retail will be gauging the views of the sector's main figureheads, via a series of exclusive interviews over the coming months. This week, it's the turn of NCR's head of UK retail, Helen Wilde.

Getting a single view of customers in order to understand the complex behaviours of shoppers should be – and is for many companies – the key focus area for the retail industry over the coming months, according to Helen Wilde, NCR's head of UK retail.

Establishing this position as consumers' homes become increasingly connected with digital devices as part of the 'internet of things' evolution could, she said, lead to retailers being able to automate some of their supply to customers, creating a real point of difference from their competitors.

It represents futuristic thinking, but the potential for those operating in sectors such as grocery or health & beauty, where shoppers have their favourite items that they stock up on time and time again, is clear to see.

"Having the ability to track and understand what a customer is doing across multiple touch-points, be it self service, mobile phone, in-store or click & collect, is critical," argued Wilde.

"I think it'll be a real differentiator in the marketplace. Once that's in place it'll provide an opportunity to offer not just personalised promotions but personalised services, too."

The NCR retail boss, who helps oversee technology projects with some of the UK's largest retail businesses including Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda, Morrisons, Boots and Marks & Spencer, predicts that some of the "single-view" investment will start to bear fruit in the next 18 months, although she acknowledges it is a challenge not all retail businesses will be able to meet quickly.

As eCommerce established itself as a part of the retail landscape at the start of the century, many companies operating in the industry created online functions as add-ons to their existing operations, and it is taking some serious IT restructuring projects to now link up all of these channels. Retailers must, said Wilde, evolve in order to instigate a "more sophisticated" one-on-one dialogue with customers.

"You can't offer a personalised service in an easy form if you've got five or six siloed systems," she argued.

"It's very difficult to transfer data back and forwards, for example if a customer rents a film online, how can that retailer offer a drink and popcorn promotion from its other channels?"

The retail division of NCR has traditionally sold self-service items to the industry, as well as scanners, receipt printers and other accompanying hardware, but it is increasingly focusing on the software and service element of retailing.

The technology firm sees itself as a "partner" to retailers, working alongside businesses to understand their major challenges and help solve some of their key pain points. From having such an insider view of the sector, Wilde is in a prime position to hear what is on the minds of those operating at the top level of the industry.

Reflecting on the way retail has changed, she said: "I think there will still be big stores as destination locations, but we've seen in the last few years the way customer shopping has moved on and the pace of change has been rapid.

"This has been led by the technology in the customers' hands and the choice they now have. Also, customers are much savvier and budget-conscious than before, and the retailers we work with are talking to us about increasing customer choice."

From the retailers Essential Retail has spoken to over the last 12 months, it seems clear that providing customers with a choice of products and a multitude of ways to interact with their brands is a route for businesses to generate improved customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Naturally, Wilde is an advocate of how self-service can play a part in this process, by helping facilitate the implementation of additional in-store services, such as pharmacies and banking. New style self-service devices are also being trialled, for example in Tesco's Lincoln store, where NCR's larger checkouts can scan products placed on a conveyor belt using imaging technology.

The concept has been developed with the aim of creating self-service facilities for those who have larger shopping baskets and to give people more time and space during the checkout process. It is being marketed as a way of improving customer experience.

"Retailers have been putting more and more devices in as customers become increasingly comfortable with them and tech becomes more refined," said Wilde.

"We are not complacent though – we know we still have a lot of work to do with things like 'unexpected item in bagging area'."

As for the next era for the industry, Wilde tells a story about her son who apparently can't understand why all retailing is not like ordering a pizza.

"He places an order via mobile, pays with PayPal and only interacts with the brand to open the door when the delivery arrives," she explained.

The executive's point is that expectations on retailers to deliver innovative, simple ways of serving the customer are higher than ever, due to the capabilities of technology. It begs the question that if retailers must have one eye constantly on the future and – as the saying goes – children are our future, should we not be listening to the younger demographic?

"Our generation just needs to take a look at our kids who are asking "why not?", rather than "why?". Retailers have got to be ready to accept this kind of challenge."

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