Retail technology view from the top: Planet Retail's Helen Slaven

As new systems and digital capability continue to evolve the way retailers run their businesses, Essential Retail is gauging the views of the sector's main figureheads, via a series of exclusive interviews. This week, it's the turn of Planet Retail's managing director, Helen Slaven.

Over the last 18 months both the global retailing and retail technology industries have seen some major consolidation, with noteworthy merger and acquisition (M&A) activity affecting some leading industry players.

In February, Poundland confirmed that it was looking to acquire its value retail competitor 99p Stores in a deal said to be worth around £55 million, but that was just the latest in a long line of companies coming together, including the merger of US giants Staples and Office Depot, and Oracle absorbing Micros into its wider business. Other recent notable link-ups include MasterCard buying TNS, Demandware taking on Tomax and, last week, the news that PayPal is acquiring mobile start-up Paydiant in a deal worth around $280 million.

Helen Slaven, managing director of business intelligence provider and industry analyst group Planet Retail, is no stranger to M&As having been in charge of retail systems supplier Torex when it was bought out by Micros in 2012.

Slaven said she expects more consolidation to occur in the coming years, and she predicts some forthcoming fundamental shifts in the UK grocery market and mergers between big data companies.

"We have only just seen the beginning of the consolidation in grocery retail – that's a story that will run and run now in the same way as electricals, DIY and big box retailing in non-food is transforming itself," she told Essential Retail.

"We are starting to see real pressure, particularly in the UK, and ultimately consolidation in some of the bigger grocery players."

Planet Retail analysts are divided on which way it will go, with some suggesting Morrisons – which is going through some significant structural changes and, like many of its supermarket rivals, a switch of leadership – has a positive future due to its integrated supply chain, but others rightly questioning how it will fend off the challenge of the European discounters that are making huge waves in UK grocery.

"Ocado could become a force to be reckoned with over the next few years," Slaven added.

"There will be a consolidation in UK grocery as there are too many players. The question is, what will happen? There's a pressure point and that's even before Amazon jumps into UK grocery. The discounters are chaging the way we shop forever, with Aldi and Lidl completely transforming private and own label perception to such a degree that it puts pressure on retailers and brands."

While there remains a period of instability and uncertainty for retailers, Slaven suggests the coming together of businesses in the technology market can actually help retail organisations develop the tech-led strategies that are now required to keep pace with fast-changing consumer behaviour.

"If you look at retail technology there is finally this realisation that there are too many different providers and there is too much choice," she noted.

"The consolidation of certain technology streams actually helps the retailer. It makes perfect sense that payments, for example, consolidate. There've been too many players for so long, but there is now a wave of consolidation in that industry, which I think is very important and significant. It means the Mastercards, Barclaycards and PayPals of this world can offer end-to-end solutions."

Slaven acknowledged that each of the consolidating areas – be it the value retail sector or the payments technology world – "makes sense", and she predicts there will be more of it to come.

"I think there are some parts of the technology world that haven't started to consolidate – such as big data – but will naturally start to do so over the next couple of years," she said.

"The change is now being driven by consumers; they are switching their shopping habits and it's forcing the market to change. It's not going to go back."

In Slaven's eyes, 2015 is going to be a significant year for retailer investment in technology because they have no option but to transform their systems and modernise their operations. Mobile and beacon technology will play a central part in this development over the next 12 months, she said, but ultimately the investment will focus on infrastructure.

"There'll be a lot more investment in multichannel supply chains as there are too many retailers fighting too many strategies on too many fronts, without having the big tech investment to handle multi-country, multichannel and managing multiple strands of merchandising," she remarked.

"As retailers try to predict price and stock against their consumers who are not predictable any more, we will start to see there'll be bigger technology decisions made to support their strategies."

At European retail solutions show RBTE this week, Planet Retail will officially launch its own Tech Insider tool, which Slaven says will increase retailers' understanding of what technology is available in the marketplace and give vendors an opportunity to link-up with potential customers.

Vendors can manage their own profiles, where they will be able to keep the industry updated with what work they are doing in the retail space. Tech Insider will also provide a platform for forums, which aim to connect all industry parties. Visitors to RBTE will be able to hear more about the product from the Planet Retail team on stand 165.

Planet Retail is a regular supporter of RBTE, and its presence will be enhanced this year through the organisation's sponsorship of the Big Party, which takes place at the end of day one of the event on the Dell Champagne Bar.

"There are only three technology shows we choose to support every year: NRF, EuroCIS and RBTE," Slaven commented.

"It's clear to us that our participation needs to be where there's a good combination of senior retailers and senior tech vendors. For us, RBTE has become an essential conference and get together – the visitor numbers prove that.

"It's got great speakers, a very strong steering committee, good content and a great environment in which to network with people in the industry."

Visitors to RBTE, which takes place between 10-11 March, can meet with the Planet Retail team on stand 165.

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