Maths and data the future of retail, says Dixons CEO

In-depth data analysis conducted "automatically and ubiquitously" to understand what and where a customer will purchase a product is the future of retailing, according to Dixons Retail CEO Sebastian James.

Speaking at an event in London earlier this week, the senior retail executive suggested that knowledge of mathematics is the new "strategic advantage" in the industry and companies should look to pepper their marketing departments with PhD-level employees who can help understand their customers' behaviour based on the digital footprints they create.

"What customers express in terms of their likes and dislikes, they discuss quite openly on social media websites," explained James.

"The true skill today is processing that data, inventing tools to manage that data and above all placing and contextualising that data."

Making sense of customers' online history, social media activity and eCommerce patterns will be the key focus for retailers in the coming years, he argued, before adding that a maths-driven workforce can "convert this wealth of data into true behaviours that speak to us about what customers really want".

James' comments came as he presented the British Retail Consortium's Annual Retail Lecture in The City of London, on Wednesday evening.

The event, which in the past has seen John Lewis chairman Charlie Mayfield and Ocado CEO Tim Steiner provide the keynote speech, was attended by a number the UK's leading retail executives and consultants, and was supported by Essential Retail and RBTE.

Although the themes and processes James spoke about are some way from becoming the retailing norm, it was clear from conversations with attendees that digital is at the top of the agenda for many businesses in the industry, with companies looking to recruit specialist directors to oversee the more technological aspects of what James described as "a brave new world" in retailing.

The general consensus was that the new digital methods of serving customers will sit alongside an amended version of the traditional high street model which will, James noted, become increasingly digitalised through mobile point of sale and cross-channel touch-points. High street stores will also have a significant role in providing somewhere for customers to "have a conversation" about products and services on offer, he added.

"A great shopkeeper is one who finds new ways to create vibrant and exciting places to shop – and yes, of course, to sell it to customers," said James.

"Our connected world, digital exhaust, explosive data, and the PhDs to help us manage all that are giving us new tools and ways to do this. The smarter ones will anticipate customers' needs and appeal to them even before the customer knows what they want [and] I think that's a very exciting future."

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