RBTE 2015: Pets at Home, Made.com and Maplin debate retail's future

One of the big challenges that comes with attending big technology expositions is the lines between what is and what could be tend to get blurred. At this week's RBTE event, an industry colleague who was also fresh from the recent EuroCIS event in Germany asked me, "how much of all this flashy technology do you think actually is getting used by retailers?"

That answer to that question is imprecise; after all, the entire retail industry is in the throes of a fundamental realignment, driven in particular by mass consumer adoption of always-on smart mobile technologies. Nowadays, consumers routinely carry 'the store' around with them wherever they go, in their pockets and purses. Today's shopper begins their shopping experience well before setting foot into a store, and that one fact has shaken the retail operational model to its roots. But since 2010, retailers have moved from scepticism to impatience when it comes to the changes required to be omnichannel, and so it was appropriate for a panel of retailers to answer the question, "what will omnichannel retailing be in 2017?"

The RBTE panel, MC’ed by ARTS Director Emeritus Richard Mader, included Matthew Stead, multichannel director at Pets At Home, Michel Koch, eCommerce director, UK and international at Maplin Electronics, Annabel Kilner, head of UK, Made.com, and me.

Mader's first question put it right on the table: "what do you think the state of omnichannel retailing will be in 2017?" 

In a nutshell, the panellists defined retailing in 2017 as a world of engaged and information-empowered consumers who want relevant solutions to their lifestyle needs – whether it's special care and feeding for pets, setting up a new home entertainment system, or redecorating the apartment with trendy furniture. In 2017, consumers will use digital content and social media to not only get information, but also to provide it for others who are searching for similar solutions.  The store will be brought into line with eCommerce capabilities and mobile will be everywhere – for both consumers and retail employees. Retailers will shift the focus from "how much product can we move through a selling channel?" to "how can we maximise sales to each customer?" Not only is this going to happen, but in many retail enterprises it is happening now.

But the panel also agreed that there's a lot of work yet to do. There needs to be consistent product and customer information made available across all the selling environments. And just as importantly, retailers have to come to a set of metrics that helps them to determine what activities contribute to sales. Stead said that at Pets At Home, sales are attributed based on postal code. But Koch also pointed out that the assignment of costs is just as important and that to be able to do that a whole new type of performance metrics needs to be put into place. Cross-channel fulfilment may be happening now, but retailers aren't necessarily sure that profitable sales are the result; it takes labour to pick those orders in the store.  

Stores aren't going away, but will come through their omnichannel transition a more relevant and service oriented experience for consumers. Kilner pointed out that stores will continue to be a destination for consumers - in fact her company, which started as an online pureplay, is opening physical showrooms. But Stead and Koch agreed that the store should be much more of a social experience, and what "social" means has been redefined by consumers with their adoption of technologies like Facebook and Twitter.

Mader wrapped up the panel discussion by asking the question, "what omnichannel investments will deliver the best ROI by 2017?" He was looking for the panel to identify one of the various omnichannel fulfilment methods (for example, buy online/pick up in store) yielded the best business result. But the panel answered in a very different way, citing customer attribution, better cost-to-serve metrics, and system integration as important investments. In other words, the panel of retailers cited the need to get the information infrastructure right.

And that was the fundamental takeaway from the panel: how shoppers choose to shop in the future is bound to change, and so in the next two years retailers will focus on redesigning their businesses to be able to deliver the brand's value wherever, whenever, and however each customer wants it. And that will be accomplished with information and (sometimes flashy new) technology.