M&S CTO Matt Horwood on today's retail tech climate

Marks & Spencer's (M&S) CTO, Matt Horwood, gave delegates at this week's Fujitsu Forum a rare detailed insight into how the retailer is tackling the technological challenges of modern business and positioning its organisation to keep up with fast-changing shopper behaviour.

Essential Retail was in the audience in Munich to hear how the food and fashion retailer is evolving its IT team, making smaller incremental changes to software every month – rather than in patches three times a year. Horwood said the plan is to use DevOps capability to reduce this to weekly timescales, as part of a wider goal to bring agility to its workforce and adopt a more mobile approach to many areas of IT.

The CTO spoke of the challenges around shifting from legacy IT systems to more flexible ways of working, and said he does not want the organisation to find itself in a position – as many retailers have in the recent past – where a vendor is charging multi-million-pound fees to increase the scale of an existing system.

Such an outlook comes at a time of huge change in the retail industry, with consumers increasingly fickle and unpredictable. For M&S, which has counted on Fujitsu as a technology partner for over 30 years, long-term internal planning is becoming a thing of the past because the pace of change is so rapid.

Summing up a widely-faced test for the traditional UK retail world, Horwood remarked: "We have to have as much energy into planning for what we know will change, as we have for those things that we think will stay the same.

"Ultimately, we are now planning our strategy around how we can react to change; not just how we can evoke change ourselves."

Whereas development around apps, social, big data & analytics, cloud computing and mobile devices were seen as areas of additional investment just three years ago, they are now viewed as "health and hygiene factors for IT", according to Horwood. They are now the fundamentals.

"If we cannot capture data, if we cannot invest in solutions in the cloud and cannot have solutions on mobile devices, we'll be prevented from adding value to the business."

He also suggested that blending new-age developers and engineers with long-standing members of the IT department who are used to working with legacy systems is no easy task. M&S is moving to introduce common goals across the tech function of the business to ensure experienced members of staff and the, arguably, more impulsive new generation each understand that a balance between considered and responsive decision making is vital in modern retailing.

"We don't want two different departments that hate each other. We want two different departments that have respect for each other and they can work and swap and collaborate for any projects we come across."

According to Horwood, M&S is also monitoring wider trends and advancements in technology to understand if they hold relevance to its retail operations or can help the company serve its customers in a better way.

On mobility:

"Mobile is very, very important but what we are seeing here and what the data is showing us is that everyone is using multiple platforms. It's not just about trying to focus on mobility being key."

On smart mirrors:

Horwood said M&S is considering how smart mirrors can demonstrate clothing ranges, adding that the simplest and most sophisticated smart system models each provide value in their own ways. There is however still some way to go before they become a game-changer, in his view.

"The real inflection point will be when it gets to commoditisation for home use," he remarked.

"When this smart technology, such as mirrors, gets to a point when you as an apparel retailer and a customer can start to select the product and a computer can model what it would look like on you and the clothing flows the way you'd expect it to in a store; that's a big step change. Especially once it comes to the £300-£400 price point, it'll actually make a real difference to the way consumers shop."

On wearable technology:

Horwood called wearable technology "a great opportunity for the warehouse", adding there is a desire and expectation among some younger colleagues at M&S to use wearables in the workplace.

Commenting on how these devices might be used for in-store communication, he said: "Being able to have hands free on a much cheaper device is something that obviously all retailers are exploring at this moment."

On beacons:

Echoing the comments of other retailers this publication has spoken to in the past, in terms of finding the right business case for beacons, Horwood said: "We love beacons until they annoy the hell out of us, or annoy our customers and then we turn them off.

"We've been through that journey and we will continue to go through that journey, and we continue to visit what this future will hold for us."

On machine learning:

There is a recognition in the M&S tech team that the streams of data needed to drive business decisions can no longer be solely analysed by staff – there is clearly an element of automation required, according to Horwood.

"We can't analyse this data with humans any more; we have to start doing machine learning, and we've initiated this."

On augmented reality:

Having visited Microsoft recently and tried the software giant's Halo product, which he called a "fantastic innovation", Horwood suggested there is the potential for virtual reality to be used in the visual merchandising process.

"The concept of being able to visualise some things you would never have been able to see in 3D, and put yourself in a position to see it from all angles seems like a small step, but actually for visual merchandisers it makes a massive difference about what the store looks like and how it will operate."

On 3D printing:

Horwood said there are various ways retailers can benefit from the development of 3D printing capability, but also warned the combination of 3D scanning and 3D printing innovation brings risks to a company's unique product proposition.

"We're getting to the point where you can copy something quite quickly. For a retailer and an own-brand manufacturer, as we are, that can actually be quite dangerous."

On driverless cars:

Horwood acknowledged there is a lot of investment going on in the field of driverless cars, and indicated that it "could be a fantastic thing" in relation to vehicle fleets and home deliveries within a retail organisation.

However, the CTO noted, companies in the logistics business still view any concrete developments in this area of technology as being at least five years away.

"It's relevant but probably not something I'm going to be making planning decisions on right now. We'll continue to look at it."

Of course, any retailer can have an opinion on new technologies and trends. To stay relevant and keep sales on the rise, while engendering loyalty and opening up their businesses to new audiences, retailers need to prove they are using the insight available to move their organisations forward.

It is widely documented that the last decade has been a challenging time for UK retail, with the rapid rise of digital and the huge economic crash in 2008 changing the way the industry operates forever. In surveys involving the largest players in the industry, the inflexibility of legacy systems and the need to make major investments in bringing agility to the IT department are often cited as particularly pressing challenges.

Judging by Horwood's presentation in Munich, M&S is a retailer battling those winds of change and looking seriously at putting the right processes in place to ensure some of the innovations and trends he identified can be integrated into the organisation, if and when they need to be.

But as with any organisation looking to transform its infrastructure, a key consideration is human resources and ensuring the team is all pulling in the same direction.

"I've got some extreme guys in our software engineering function who believe we don't need roadmaps any more, but that's not true," he said.

"We need to know the direction we're heading in. We do know that consumer technology changes are going to make that very difficult to stick to, but we just need to put in place the digital skills to help us get there. Trying to put all of these skills into an organisation without fragmenting what the organisation looks like is critical for us."

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