Retail technology vendor innovation: Cisco

What is Cisco?

US-based but with a global reach, Cisco provides networking technology solutions for organisations from a range of different markets.

It works with a number of organisations across the world, from leading UK grocer Tesco to Las Vegas hotel/casino group MGM, offering various in-store and digital technology systems.

What's new at Cisco?

It was announced yesterday (10 September) that Cisco is to enter the data storage market in the coming months, having agreed to acquire US-based storage system maker Whiptail for $415 million (£264 million). The deal is expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2014.

But in terms of the here and now, Cisco is working with a selection of leading retail and leisure businesses with the aim of helping to improve customer experiences. Following its Internet of Everything mantra, which it uses to define the way technology is bringing people, processes and data together to help make more relevant connections in a multichannel world, the solutions provider is applying a holistic approach in the work it undertakes with individual businesses.

Lisa Fretwell, senior director of retail and consumer products at Cisco, says that three critical areas of focus for her and Cisco’s customers are mobile, developing cross-channel experiences and the utilisation of analytical and location-based data.

“From a retail perspective the main value drivers are around improved customer experience, employee productivity and supply chain & logistics – this is where we are seeing a lot of activity,” the director explains.

One case study Cisco is keen to promote is that of the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino group, where a number of premises now enable customers to have personalised experiences as they move through the complex. For example, customers enter the building and if they have opted in to such services they will be prompted to open an app or a web browser that might be pushing tickets for particular shows, promoting drink offers or advertising other services such as personal croupier sessions.

“We’re using data in a much richer way to give different levels of experience to different types of customer – obviously we’ve got Wi-Fi technology, location technology and the analytics that are now making the experience much more than just sending people promotions or vouchers,” Fretwell explains.

Not all consumers are happy to use such technology, but the Cisco director suggests that uptake is growing as people realise there is something in it for them; be it money off an event or improved efficiency in the booking process. A stage for later down the line will be personalised pricing, but Fretwell admits that this system is “very emaciate at the moment”.

On the more traditional retail scene, the kind of technology used to generate reminders and recommendations is becoming more prevalent, although companies in this industry are rightfully taking a cautious approach to it. Fretwell says that it is important for retailers to follow a balanced strategy in terms of the technology they use for in-store experiences.

“We are seeing retailers move into that space warily because there are concerns about how to engage with customers,” she notes. “Also, mobile is great for certain age groups and certain types of customers – but it doesn’t suit everybody."

So what will be the next big areas of technological exploration? MCommerce in its various forms continues to grow in importance throughout the retail industry, and Fretwell believes that there is potential to drive more value out of in-store Wi-Fi.

“Retailer Wi-Fi sign-up is very impressive. Every retailer that has put the service in continues to be shocked at how much it’s used,” she comments.

The underlying principles to do with self-serve technology make up another area of investigation for Cisco and its retail customers, with issues surrounding store operations and the supply chain at the top of the agenda. Retailers are increasingly asking how they can use this technology to cut costs.

What makes Cisco stand out?

In the build-up to the London Olympic Games in 2012, the buzzword was 'legacy'. The chairman for the Games, Sebastian Coe, worked hard to spread the message that the feel-good factor created by the sporting event would not just last for three weeks, but would have a lasting impact, in many different channels, across the UK.

As a key sponsor of London 2012, Cisco is also duty bound to follow this philosophy – and, as a direct consequence of its involvement in the Games, the company launched its British Innovation Gateway (BIG) to help support the rising stars in retail technology.

Part of the initiative involves the BIG Awards, which aims to reward companies for innovative technology product ideas. Now in its second year, the competition will run in the UK until 2016, with this year’s first prize standing at $200,000 and a 12-month mentoring scheme from Cisco and its sponsoring partners.

There are cash prizes for runner-up and third-place spots, and there are currently 20 companies that have reached the semi-final stage. A winner will be announced in November, and it is hoped that the winning concept will become part of an already forward-thinking technology community. Who knows? It could be the Launchpad for the next big technology development that will impact the retail community for years to come.

Fretwell says: “We mentor these firms and our objective is to help get these companies in a reasonable position so they have something they can take forward.

“By helping drive innovation from a grassroots level – and we believe lots of the innovation comes from the small businesses – it drives growth in our own specific tech economy. By helping the smaller start-ups and innovators this drives growth and drives our reputation in the UK for being a leading innovator.”

There is a chance that winning companies might be ones that Cisco is interested in acquiring or adding to its portfolio, but that is not the main reason for the inception of the BIG Awards. Indeed, last year’s winner was a visual search engine retail app from Snap Fashion, which won over judges for its clever photo tracking functionality.

“It was a good use of technology and a great customer experience,” explains Fretwell.

What the boss says...

Perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, considering the solutions and technology Cisco offers the business community, Fretwell says that the most important technological consideration for retailers in the 18 months ahead is how they pull different systems together to create experiences for their customers.

Her main message to retailers is a warning not to invest in single-point solutions; she believes they need to be spending their technology budgets on open platforms that can connect data and allow access to different information across their businesses, as well as evolve with future technological development.

“Retailers say ‘I’ve done that and that’ll be OK for the next seven years’, but if they haven’t created the right architecture then they are going to cut themselves off,” Fretwell warns.

“The likes of John Lewis have invested well in underlying platforms from which they can really build their experiences, as opposed to just choosing one-off point solutions. You can see the retailers that are doing things right or those which are moving to get that architecture in place, because they can do things a lot quicker than those that haven’t.”