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#DF19: Decathlon CIO chooses San Fran for start-up innovation

Decathlon’s North American CIO and CTO, Tony Leon, has described how moving to the Bay Area has helped the retailer develop more innovative technology solutions.

Leon moved to the US in order to kick-start exploratory retail technology projects for Decathlon, such as an in-store robot, which roams store aisles to check inventory using an RFID scanner.

During his years working for Decathlon in France and India, Leon would become frustrated when meeting start-ups on trips over to San Francisco and Silicon Valley because the first question they would ask was whether he was based in the US.

“When I said ‘no’ they were closing the door a little bit,” he explained during a tour of Decathlon’s San Francisco store on Market Street. “Now I can say ‘yes, I’m based here’ a project is possible – they come back [the next day] with the robot to test it, which was not possible in France or Europe.”

Leon said now he has moved to the US, he and his team of seven can work closer with start-ups, as well as the big tech giants including Salesforce, Apple and Mulesoft. Working with these technology companies, Decathlon can work on projects and test them in one of its three stores in the Bay Area before considering rolling out any tech more widely to the rest of its store fleet. “Being here allows us to connect with a talent hub,” he said.

Connecting legacy and innovation

Decathlon started in France over 40 years ago and its headquarters remain in Lille. It now has over 1,600 stores in 52 countries across the globe. The retailer once traded on the East Coast of America, but it exited the country back in 2006, before re-entering the market again three years ago.

Leon said that while the US is the biggest sports market in the world, if the company was to attempt launching in the country once more it needed to think carefully about its IT strategy – especially because of the current “retailpocalyse” landscape. He said the retailer tried to match its mindset to that of San Francisco, which he described as the “most innovative city in the world”.

One way it has digitised its business has been to work with Mulesoft for the last few years to build an application network to connect various systems. The technology allows the retailer to tie together its older IT systems with newer technology innovations by building an API layer to plug various modular elements together.

“The way retail is changing is very fast, we needed to re-think the way we do IT,” he said. “We started to discuss with Mulesoft how to support the new digital innovations that we have, and how to make it as smooth as possible.”

Leon said it was too difficult to modify legacy IT systems, which are complicated to maintain and scale. Instead it would work with start-ups to create new technology modules – such as a payment gateway – and then use Mulesoft’s technology to integrate it with its existing retail systems.

Connecting a number of individual systems allows data to flow more freely and, for example, has allowed Decathlon to sync eCommerce orders with real-time inventory data which allows customers to experience a seamless check-out.

“Business is changing very fast and IT has to follow – and sometimes we have to be one step ahead of the business to be good for the future.”

In-store tech

During the tour, which was part of a press day organised by Salesforce before its Dreamforce 2019 conference (19-22 November), Essential Retail was shown a number of in-store innovations used by Decathlon. These included its shelf check inventory robot, nicknamed Tally, created by Simbe Robotics and a number of large-scale tablets which helps the small 8,000 sq ft store offer its entire 100,000 SKUs to customers digitally.

The store also featured two check-out systems, known internally as ‘RFID Trollies’. These box-like carts are on wheels help store associates speed up the check-out by placing a customer’s basket inside the check-out box which uses an RFID scanner to immediately tot up their bill. Store associates then scan a QR code with iPhone device to bring up the total, customers then pay by card, security tags are deactivated and they can swiftly leave the store with their goods.

Decathlon’s new 40,000 sq ft store in Portreo features 15 of these trollies as well as the inventory robot and customer-facing tablets. Leon explained how these technologies either remove or speed up manual tasks allowing store associates to spend more time with customers.