#RBTE2018: Can retailers handle the technology on offer?

Industry commentators are all too often talking about ‘the future of retail’ rather than detailing how new software, solutions and technology are having a positive impact today.

Arguably it comes down to the fact that for all the technology in existence promising to take retailers in new directions, save them money, boost the customer experience, and make operations more efficient, many retailers still aren’t able to fully integrate it.

It is no secret that the replacement of old systems and legacy IT cannot be undertaken overnight, but it must be frustrating for businesses operating in the sector to see so much new tech kit available and only be able to utilise it sparingly.

“Retailers are not organisationally designed to respond and react to this technology,” explains consultant and ex-Burberry IT vice-president Craig Crawford.

“We put it in and we say it fails, but the tech didn’t fail, it was our adoption of it and aligning ourselves on the shop floor and head office. That’s the biggest challenge – the pace of change is so great, but how do retailers align and realign themselves?”

At RBTE on 2-3 May, it was clear from the conference sessions that retailers are doing their utmost to build in the flexibility and adaptability that is required to operate in modern commerce, and therefore be able to optimise so much of the equipment on show across the event’s expo floor, which once again was larger than the year before.

From Oliver Bonas’s eCommerce upgrade and Co-op Food’s logistics system enhancements, to Schuh’s bespoke technology infrastructure implementation and Wyevale Garden Centres’ automated supply chain – retailers are on a journey towards agility. But it takes time to reshape a whole industry infrastructure.

It was clear from the stands at RBTE that once that agility is built in, there are many retail technology options available to provide the opportunity for future success and to create compelling customer experiences.

Technology in focus

The technology and systems that appear to truly excite the wider industry revolve around artificial intelligence, data capture and analysis, payment versatility, and mobility – and those areas were represented in abundance at RBTE.

Payments had its own conference theatre once again, enabling retailers, brands, and the payments companies themselves to delve deep into the key issues surrounding this crucial element of the shopper journey.

Mark McMurtrie, an independent consultant and chair of the payments stream at RBTE, notes: “Payments used to be the domain of the big banks, but they aren’t able to respond quickly enough to the innovation occurring and to what consumers demand.

“We’re now looking at the new fintechs, which are arriving with new platforms, and which aren’t constrained by legacy, and which can provide the adaptability and choice that retailers are demanding.”

Adyen’s ability to provide one cloud-based platform for a retailer, which can be plugged into a multitude of payment providers and systems, is one company gaining favour with IT teams across retail of late. YoYo Wallet, meanwhile, showcased how it has worked with Caffe Nero to wrap sophisticated payments and loyalty elements into the coffee chain’s increasingly popular mobile app.

These examples show how versatility is key for payment providers looking to gain traction among the retail community, and the likes of Optomany, Secure Retail and Verifone are among the vendors that have set up their propositions with this in mind, too.

“Consumers are increasingly going to be putting themselves in control of the payment experience,” McMurtrie adds.

“This may be within app payments, using the mobile phone by picking and choosing which card they want to use before making an NFC payment, or it may be from a self- service kiosk. It’s about empowering the customer to drive the transaction, choose how they want to pay.”

For James Pepper, technical services director at Vista Retail Support, two RBTE stands stood out from the rest – those run by Hitachi Europe and Epson.

“Hitachi is using technology called LiDAR which works on the same principle as radar but uses light,” he notes, adding that the solution represents a people movement tracking technology that offers users more than just the typical information about dwell time, movement and effectiveness of promotions.

“Hitachi has very cleverly encompassed multipurpose functionality into this technology, so that it can be deployed to identify stock loss, promote customer engagement, measure and track footfall, and measure success of promotions and product visual merchandising,” Pepper says.

“Unlike most systems where a motion sensor looks down on the customer from upon high and records a customer’s movement as a blob on the screen, the LiDAR analyses 3D movements, therefore, it can identify customers’ actions i.e. a person's arm movement towards a specific location and whether they pick up, or put back an item.”

Pepper was also complimentary about Epson’s latest laser projection systems, saying “the clarity and quality of the images projected from the light scene EV-100 was remarkable” and would improve the displays of any merchant using the equipment.

Avoiding verschlimmbesserung

It is well known that the Germans often have words for situations that don’t have an English language equivalent, but one that might not be so familiar is the term “verschlimmbesserung” [pronounced: fir-sch-lim-bess-er-oong].

It is the label given to an attempted improvement that actually makes things a lot worse, and it was a term recently publicised on Twitter by TV gameshow Countdown’s wordsmith, Susie Dent.

Many retail executives have been guilty of 'verschlimmbesserung' over the years, but this term becomes particularly pertinent in relation to retail technology. In times of desperation, executives often turn to one bit of technology that they believe can turn their fortunes around, but it can have the opposite effect.

There are countless examples of retailers that have invested in new, expensive devices, software or internal workplace tools, that are left unused and abandoned. It’s the same for any workplace, in any industry.

Navigating around RBTE, it was clear that there was something for every retailer or brand, but at the same time each of the stands did not offer something for everybody. Merchants must be tactical in the procurement process, and not invest in technology for technology’s sake – it’s a key message repeated time and again by analysts.

“The thing which struck me most from the show was that retailers should resist chasing the newest, latest shiny thing,” argues Andrew Busby, CEO of Retail Reflections.

“There's no silver bullet – otherwise we would have it by now and every retail business would be a roaring success.”

He continues: “Technology must be kept in its place as an enabler, invisible from the audience. A bit like a stage production – we don't see behind the scenes, we don't see all the effort which goes into making a great spectacle. This is the secret now for retailers – use technology wisely and appropriately.”

From the conference sessions at RBTE, that appears to be a strategy in progress. The stands on the expo floor offer the vast majority of the functionality retailers require today, and as retail organisational and structural change continues apace there should increasingly be reasons to deploy more of it.