Retail technology: a view from the US

What do you think are going to be the key trends in retail technology over the next 12 months?

Retailers have spent the last 3+ years experimenting and learning how to harmonise the digital and physical selling environments into a cohesive Brand experience for their customers.  Now the task is to align internal operational processes to an omnichannel shopping experience. Retailers need to optimise consumers' paths-to-purchase (which often start outside of the store on mobile phones or via a browser) so that the retailer can make the right product content and community feedback (customer reviews, etc.) available to consumers when, where, and how they want it.  A big part of this is redefining the role of marketing, to deliver the right value messages to consumers at the right moment in time – again, often outside of the four walls of the store. But it's also important that retailers optimize customer order fulfilment scenarios (for example, store fulfilment of an eCommerce order, or a store return of an order that was delivered directly to the consumer, etc.). A big consideration is what the role of the store is in omnichannel order fulfilment.  Finally, retailers must begin to think through the implications of the new harmonized omnichannel selling environment is on the supply chain – and that is probably the biggest change of all.

How important is mobile, social networking, eCommerce and the cloud to retailers? What other subjects do you think are key considerations?

"Mobile" is the trigger technology that has moved masses of consumers to demand an omnichannel shopping experience.  Although it can be argued that eCommerce capabilities have been available for years via the Web, it was the rapid and wide-scale adoption of smart mobile technologies that kicked that trend into high gear. Social networking has also benefitted greatly from consumer adoption of smart mobile technologies, and retailers have learned that it's in their best interests to (first) listen to what consumers are saying about their products and services on social networks, and (second) to make consumer opinions available to shoppers as part of the shopping experience. The days of eCommerce via a PC and web browser are certainly not over – in fact, most retailers think of mCommerce as a mobile-optimised version of their eCommerce offering. However, early adopters of eCommerce are finding that they have to retool their websites to be more in sync with the capabilities of mobile and social networking technologies. Cloud is already an over-used term and its meaning has been distorted. Cloud computing is a technical architectural concept for delivering information and tech-driven processes to those that need them at the right moment in time. That having been said, the reason that cloud is so interesting to businesses now is twofold: first, the audience for retailers' information and tech-driven processes is much greater than before and includes not just employees and partners, but also consumers – potentially worldwide!  Secondly, retailers don't have enough money or time to deliver new capabilities being demanded by consumers, and for that reason they are looking hard at commercially available solutions that solve their business challenges, that can be paid for on an as-used basis (like a service utility).

Are there any innovations that you've seen or heard of recently that have caught your interest (this doesn't have to be linked to retail)?

There's a tremendous amount of effort now in Silicon Valley and around the world to figure out low cost and reliable ways to track consumers behaviours through the digital shopping process, and to tie those behaviours to what’s happening in the physical world. For example, if a shopper is looking up a recipe on her mobile while standing in an aisle at the local supermarket, retailers want to find a way to get information about available products, special discounts, etc. to that consumer at the right moment. Related to this is the whole issue of big data. Retailers have discovered that the non-transactional signals that the consumer is generating in her path-to-purchase (for example, what she has browsed, reviews she has read, price comparisons she has made, coupons she has used, etc.) are all potentially important and need to be analysed and acted upon, in real time. Big data includes not only these signals, but also other things such as Tweets, Facebook comments, Pinterest postings, geo-locational signals, and even video streams. All of that data potentially needs to be consumed by retailers to enhance each consumer's total shopping experience while its happening. Technologies that are coming out to help businesses consume big data are amazing!

What are biggest challenges to your business at the moment?

As alluded to earlier, the retail business model – everything from planning, through buying, to selling and analysing results – needs to be re-examined in light of new consumer shopping behaviours triggered by the massive adoption of smart mobile technologies. The retail operational model is based on the assumption that consumers come to the store to investigate, select, pay for, and take possession of their purchases. That is certainly no longer true; consumers nowadays do much of their investigating and selection before ever walking into a store. That changes everything. Retail is truly at a 'reset moment'.

What is the biggest headache in your job right now?

Helping retail executives sort though the implications of their 'reset moment', and helping technology companies align what they offer to the real needs of retailers.

What do you see as the challenges and benefits in the growth of multichannel?

The challenge is in two parts: first, how to touch consumers with the Brand Value while they are travelling along their digitally enabled path-to-purchase (even if they intend to finish that process in a store), and secondly, how to profitably fulfil the resulting customer order? As to benefits, that may be a moot point – consumers are demanding that level of service; our job is to figure out how to do it effectively and profitably.

Best invention you would like to see in the business (can be outrageous fantasy)?

Useful information delivered to me at just the right moment – without my necessarily having asked for it. But right now, my outrageous fantasy is simple: a virtually free and absolutely reliable mobile connection to integrated voice and data, that is also secure – anywhere in the world.

Who is your business hero?

US management consultant, educator and author Peter Drucker – no question about it.

Who would be your dream speaker at a conference?

Former US president, Bill Clinton.

What’s the best example of digital engagement that you’ve experienced/heard of?

My current favourite is by a US retailer called REI (Recreational Equipment Inc). REI has a nicely integrated social, eCommerce, and store omnichannel selling environment that caters to "outdoorsy" people who have discriminating tastes about biking, hiking, skiing, etc. The integration between the channels is nicely done.

Favourite retailer (and why)?

Nordstrom (US department store operator).  They get it, and get me.

Brian Kilcourse is also a steering committee member of RBTE, the UK and Europe's leading retail event, which takes place at London's Earls Court between 11-12 March 2014.