Next wave of retail tech targeted at 'unloved' merchandisers

Retailers' merchandising teams have been "unloved" in terms of being provided with access to technology that can enhance the way they operate – but that could be set to change.

A panel debate involving retailers and retail technology professionals, which took place at the recent Buying & Merchandising Summit in London, drew attention to the growing impact technology is having behind-the-scenes and within these fundamentally crucial retail departments.

Ex-Kiddicare COO and now Elevaate CEO, Simon Harrow, suggested an industry-wide shift in thinking is underway, which could result in core retail functions such as buying and merchandising undergoing a period of significant innovation.

"Commercial and merchandising teams have been unloved," he told delegates at the summit.

"The next wave of innovation will come into those teams."

Harrow, whose recently-launched Elevaate business provides retailers such as and Iceland with a product placement platform connecting on-website activity to supply chain inventory, was joined on the panel debate by White Stuff IT director Julie Price, Net-a-Porter retail & merchandising director Paul Brennan and ex-Maplin eCommerce boss Michel Koch.

Far from scraping the barrel

Brennan, in particular, talked positively about the emergence of online scraping tools that represent "a huge advancement" in what has previously been available to his team and his peers, saying the solutions offered by vendors such as Edited and WGSN INStock are being considered by Net-a-Porter.

Commenting to Essential Retail, Charlotte Kula-Przezwanski, director of EMEA at Columbus Consulting, name-checked the same two companies as key providers of scraping technology but added that some retailers such as fashion and homeware chain Next are developing their own internal systems for this process.

"Merchandising historically has just had planning tools given to them; these scraping tools really change the dial for them as they are so real time and offer so much data, with millions of records curated easily," she explained.

"For example, on Monday morning you might have had a bad week and the scraping info shows you that two retailers put promotions on their websites at the last minute just for Saturday. Or for colour analysis it shows the rest of the high street had pink as its key colour that week but you missed the trend."

Edited, which until it completed a rebranding exercise in September went by the name EDITD, works with retailers such as Asos, where the 200-strong B&M team use the technology to help them understand and optimise for demand, trends, products, price architecture and regional behavioural differences. The insight garnered is used in the decision-making process around pricing and sourcing.

WGSN, meanwhile, recently emphasised the type of insight it can offer retailers by publishing some headline statistics relating to last month's London and New York fashion weeks.

Indicating its potential to provide real-time fashion trends data, it reported that dresses took this year's fashion weeks by storm and were the main focal point in both London and New York.

In London, dresses with ruffles apparently increased by 62% from 8% in spring/summer (SS) 2015 to 13% in SS16, while floral dresses saw an increase of 164% from 6% to 15%. In New York, the percentage of dresses within the overall assortment grew by 19% from 26% in SS15 to 30% in SS16.

Such data mining is just an example of the in-depth information retailers can now find at their fingertips, by investing in the right technology solutions. Commenting during the B&M Summit panel debate, Net-a-Porter's Brennan remarked: "We haven't yet purchased the technology, but something dancing on our view is scraping tools.

"We're very lucky that at the beginning we didn't have the [online] competition [but] now there's Selfridge's, Neiman Marcus, Asos, Lane Crawford – with all of these stores around the world, now a customer can shop across the world. The scraping tools have been able to let me look at all of those retailers, including who's got the most bags, styles and colours, and down to who has the most Gucci bags and what price points."

He added that this information can be used to highlight opportunities to Net-a-Porter's buyers.

"It's much more efficient than just going to New York and looking at the assortment in Neiman Marcus versus Saks Fifth Avenue, which is just not feasible. Scraping tools are a huge, huge advancement."

Winds of change

As the panel debate unfolded, Koch, who prior to taking his last job at Maplin was head of international multichannel trading at Marks & Spencer, predicted that the "voice of the consumer" will become more important to buying and merchandising teams as businesses operating in the sector continue their drive towards becoming customer-centric organisations.

Whether it is through insight programmes or social media analysis, there is the potential for buyers and merchandisers to find out what the most popular products are directly from the end user.

"You can improve your content from customer interaction," he said.

"I came across a tool which measures the availability from a customer perspective rather than a tool perspective, when something is out of stock, visible on the website, but not necessarily in your tools internally. You want to make sure you have this customer view on things, so you have an actual vision on what they experience."

Koch suggested that "content analytics" can allow retailers to measure existing and missing images on their websites from a customer perspective, which he said can be particularly useful for businesses such as Maplin, where there is an extensive range of SKUs displayed online.

Meanwhile, White Stuff IT director Price revealed that she has overseen an internal project to provide the fashion business's number crunchers with more powerful laptops, to support their spreadsheet-based work, simplify their roles and reduce paperwork.

She described the move as being more efficient for the team and a way of "making people's lives easier".

Technology is often touted as "making people's lives easier" – sometimes slightly erroneously, one could argue. But within the buying and merchandising departments of retailers around the world, it appears to ring true and there is a shift towards using new systems to boost efficiency.

Reflecting again on the development and newfound prominence of scraping tools, Kula-Przezwanski makes exactly that point.

"The main benefit is speed to decision. Manually you could access other retailers' websites and get the product information, trends and messaging, as well as signing up to all the newsletters, but this is very time-consuming," she said.

"These scraping technologies do the hard work for you and curate it with clever analytics, into a digestible form to allow retailers to make much more informed decisions, and quickly."

Retail's buying and merchandising community stands to benefit from this latest form of retail technology entering the market, and they appear increasingly open to trialling new devices and systems in the interest of ramping up productivity.

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Columbus Consulting