RBTE 2017 interview: Tesco's Paul Wilkinson on IoT experimentation

Tesco launched on web platform IFTTT [If This Then That] earlier this year as a first significant step along the road to using Internet of Things (IoT) technology to help automate certain elements of internet shopping in the UK.

Led by the supermarket's innovation division, Tesco Labs, the creation of an IFTTT channel has allowed the retailer's shoppers to devise shopping-related actions based on certain triggers. For example, consumers who sign up to the website with their Tesco Groceries account can create a rule meaning ice lollies are automatically added to their Tesco online accounts if the weather reaches a certain temperature.

IFTTT is a free to use platform, giving participating businesses an opportunity to combine services and automate activities across the web.

Head of Research at Tesco Labs, Paul Wilkinson, is at the forefront of the IFTTT.com/Tesco project and he is scheduled to talk about its progress in some detail at next year's RBTE, which runs from 8-9 May 2017 at London Olympia. He told Essential Retail it is a suitable way of understanding how consumers would want to connect Tesco to other services and hardware.

"What's interesting for us is that it allows us to discover what sort of rules people want to create," Wilkinson explained.

"In this whole world of IoT we don't necessarily know yet if it's worth us building an app that works with Nest, for example, but through this we can find out what is more popular than others and whether it will be worth building something like that."

IFTTT started off primarily as a social media tool, with rules such as 'If I change my Facebook profile picture then also change it on Twitter' or 'If someone tags me in a picture on Facebook save it to Dropbox', but as Wilkinson suggests "it appears to have become the de facto platform for connecting internet hardware and services", as well as evolving into a central part of the smart home as the IoT movement has gained pace.

It is early adopters of technology that typically use IFTTT – it is far from in mainstream use – but Tesco wanted to explore it from a retail perspective and see what services its customers would link to their online groceries. Rules have been created that spark actions, such as an email alert when products go under a certain price, or items automatically get added to a Tesco online shopping basket on certain days of the week.

Wilkinson talks of even more specific ways Tesco's account has been linked to the wider IFTTT ecosystem, such as 'If I hit my Fitbit target then add a cake to my basket as a reward' or 'If there's an event coming up in my calendar that has birthday in it then put a birthday card in my basket'. Essentially, Tesco's grocery account holders can connect to hundreds of other services and it is a significant step towards automating online shopping in the future.

"We've already got a lot of good data out of it. We already know that people use it for email alerts and notifications. A lot of people do date and time-based stuff such as 'Every Thursday put milk in my basket' – that's a very straightforward rule."

As a Tesco employee, Wilkinson is inevitably a Tesco shopper too – and being at the heart of tech development within the business means he uses IFTTT for his own shopping. He admits he has a couple of price-related rules for Champagne, and one that adds burgers to his online basket if the weather is particularly hot around barbeque season.

But what does this all mean and where is it going?

Amazon this week announced that GeniCan, Honeywell, Nestle and WePlenish were the latest device makers to join the Dash Replenishment programme, allowing them to enable their connected devices to automatically reorder physical goods from Amazon using a simple set of APIs – for example, a washer that reorders laundry detergent when supplies run low, or a coffee maker that reorders coffee when needed. All of this is done using the Amazon Dash button.

Although these particular new additions were US-based, joining existing participants such as Whirlpool and GE Appliances, Amazon also recently announced the availability of Dash Replenishment in Europe with device makers Beko, Bosch, Siemens, Grundig, Kyocera, Samsung and Whirlpool among those involved.

Television adverts in the UK for the likes of electricals e-tailer AO.com and IBM are talking about the rise of IoT and the availability of connected devices, emphasising the movement towards smart homes and automatic replenishment of goods.

"In the next couple of years all the white goods manufacturers are going to make goods with this connectivity, and the ability to talk back to a retailer," said Wilkinson.

"Dishwasher tablets and washing machines are the easiest ones because they're a one-to-one relationship between what is used. We'll see that slowly taking over, and we'll see that stuff get automated quite quickly for people who have the right sort of hardware – it'll be for uninteresting products people don't really enjoy shopping for."

Wilkinson acknowledges it is still the start of the automation-smart home journey, and the fact white goods are not replaced on a regular basis means it will be slow moving until smart devices are prevalent in people's homes. However, he adds that Tesco is working on IoT capabilities in keeping with modern shopping trends that bring convenience to customers.

"A lot of our customers will check their online order the day before it's due and add a few things, and it'll be at this point they'll see what's been ordered for them by their appliances," he said.

"I think the model where you just get one delivery a week or every ten days or so is still very valid. A lot of the things we're doing in this space will help towards that really."

On the journey towards increased automation in grocery shopping, Wilkinson added: "To start with appliances might say, 'Hey, I think you're going to need this, do you want to add it?'.

"Once consumers are comfortable with that we'll see 'I'm putting this in your basket but I'm just letting you know'. Then as you trust it more and more, you stop asking and things are put in your basket for you."

Wilkinson promises there are more innovation projects in the pipeline at Tesco, not just in the IoT space but in terms of technology and systems he believes will boost the customer experience and operational efficiencies within the business.

CEO Lewis is keen to talk about a lot of the future plans at Tesco but is arguably more reticent when it comes to technology and other innovation in the business. It is perhaps indicative of the importance of tech as a differentiator in retail, now, and the need to innovate to win in a competitive marketplace.

"Technology touches every part of the business these days," noted Wilkinson.

"We're not a technology business but it's a massive enabler. We see these IoT things and there's a lot of innovation out there that's tech-enabled, and it's only going to grow."

On stage at RBTE

More on what Tesco is up to in the world of retail technology development will be presented at RBTE, when Wilkinson takes to the stage next spring. He'll be speaking as part of an illustrious line-up of senior industry figures at the conference, adjacent to the main expo floor where hundreds of retail tech companies will be showcasing their wares.

Commenting on the show and its reputation in the retail industry, Wilkinson said: "I've been every year since it started.

"Events like RBTE are good because everyone is there in one place and it makes my life easier. I can go in and speak to lots of different people and I can speak to some people I might not normally catch up with. It's always really interesting to hear from other retailers about the projects they're working on and how they are working on those initiatives."

He added: "A lot of people from Tesco go – you can't walk too far without bumping into someone else from technology in Tesco. It's a popular event. I can't walk ten metres without seeing someone I know."

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