BIG INTERVIEW: Spar IT controller Roy Ford

Convenience retail group Spar has been testing and trialling a number of new technology systems in its stores in recent years, but when it comes to self-checkouts there could be a barrier to adoption from the organisation's network of independent stores.

A report released by in January found that 19% of UK shoppers admitted stealing from self service checkouts, with 57% of these people saying that they first started taking goods because they couldn’t get an item to scan. Spar IT controller Roy Ford says such findings are not likely to go down well with his retailers.

"Customers admitted to regularly putting items through without paying for them," Ford told Essential Retail.

"If our retailers have seen that, you can bet your life that it’s a no-no if we try and sell them self-checkouts."

Nevertheless, it is a technology that Spar is considering introducing to more of its stores across the UK – with Ford suggesting that they could be particularly useful in the group's busier shops. At the same time, he admits it is important for the business not to lose its personal touch, because in some stores in more remote communities, he argues that shopkeepers may be the only person a shopper speaks to on a regular basis.

"If you take the personal service away by putting a self-service checkout in every store, I'm not convinced that's the right thing for us to do," he said.

"However, I do think in busy stores you need some kind of quick service device."

Spar's initial trial with self-service checkouts in Northern Ireland was, by Ford's own reckoning, not particularly successful. He acknowledged that the retailer was working with the wrong supplier, and if the company is to move in this technological direction once again, he would align himself with NCR.

"NCR has an express machine that can be used as a normal checkout, so if we do go ahead – and we are looking at it at the moment – that would certainly be the model we would use," Ford noted.

The IT controller also believes that there is sufficient potential for mobile payment solutions to operate in-store, with smartphones and tablets potentially a lot cheaper to use for mobile point of sale than installing machines at more than £10,000 a time, although Spar is not looking to lead the industry in adoption of these technologies.

Box Technologies recently unveiled the cielo Mobile Tablet device for assisted selling, which uses new Windows technology and can integrate with existing solutions. The vendor has placed chip and PIN on the terminal and the hardware can be used inside or outside – but it does not quite hit the spot for Ford.

"They missed a real opportunity when they put a payments device on their tablets but they did not put a scanner on," he explained.

"This is fine for the fashion industry when you are serving one to one and there's time to key in the dress code, etc. When you're trying to serve customers with three or four items in a basket, you need to be able to scan those products and keying in codes is just not viable."

Much of Spar's technological innovation in recent years has revolved around the payments piece, and it was one of the first larger businesses in the industry to embrace contactless payment.

It was something of a "false start", though, with Ford admitting that the company bringing the terminals to Spar, Commidea, was soon taken over by VeriFone, which deemed the systems non-PCI compliant.

The roll-out of new compliant VeriFone terminals is now well underway, but there are still around 300-400 stores in the Spar network that are yet to implement the technology. With Visa Europe reporting that there are now over 30 million contactless payment cards in circulation in the UK, there should be no need to convince Spar's retailers of the potential value of placing terminals in-store.

For Spar, already around 16% of its 120,000 daily debit card transactions are conducted via contactless.

Ford commented: "We're in the process of delivering new VeriFone terminals, and they have a much better transaction rate for particularly low transactions where, for purchases under £2, in theory it will be cheaper for the retailer to use a contactless card than it would for them to bank the cash.

"Our average plastic card transaction is around £15, so for anything under £30 it's got to be a saving for the retailers."

Contactless technology has been around for some time, but 2013 was really the year it became a relatively mainstream mode of payment across the retail sector, with the likes of Boots implementing it across its store portfolio. The next stage of development is in introducing higher value contactless payments in-store – and this is something Spar is investigating in conjunction with its fuel system providers.

Many Spar stores across the UK are attached to petrol forecourts, and Ford believes that allowing drivers to more conveniently pay for their fuel with contactless cards or mobile payments could be a strategic business advantage.

Of course, the direction of mobile payments is still unclear, with retailers cautious about making changes to the point of sale, which is arguably most important part of the entire consumer purchase journey.

"The reality is that isn't adopted by the majority, you'd be very silly to be out on your own taking it," said Ford.

"I'm looking at Barclays Pingit and Zapp – and I can see us incorporating these into our payments system first. Some of the others are good, linking all cards together, but it's the same old argument – if there isn't a standard or capability, none of these things are going to work."

Retail is currently going through something of a technological revolution, with so much new software and hardware entering the market at an unprecedented rate.

Spar and its IT controller Ford continue to adopt the systems that build on the group's convenience retailing philosophy, while still maintaining a personal touch with its shoppers, which for many of its customers is the most important function of all.


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