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RBTE 2015: UK retail expo rising

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate on a couple of panel discussions at RBTE in London, UK. The event is now in its fifth year, and this year featured a major addition – the Retail Design Expo. To accommodate almost double the floorspace, the event was moved to Olympia in Kensington, a wonderful iron-and-glass hall built in 1886, complete with all the flourishes of the Victorian age.

The event came into being based on a perception that the UK market had fallen into a gap in coverage somewhere between the National Retail Federation's annual Big Show in New York, and the annual EuroCIS/EuroShop events in Germany. It must be true; my thumbnail estimate is that about 12,000 people attended the two-day event, up significantly from the year before. Of course, it didn't hurt that the BBC picked up on the buzz at the Olympia, and did a series of morning news vignettes showing off such things as retail robots. Whether or not there's a cause-and-effect, the second day's attendance (following those BBC morning news spots) was very good, perhaps even better than the opening day.

Harmonisation of the digital and the physical

At RSR, we talk and write a lot about the harmonisation of the digital and physical selling environments, so that retailers can serve today's omnichannel customer. The RBTE event reflected both the opportunities and the challenges to the task of integrating the two.

The digital world was the focus at the front of the Grand Hall, featuring solutions and vendors similar to the exposition floor we're all used to at the NRF event (I was more than gratified that Lexmark has carried on with AccessVia's expresso bar tradition – I was compelled to visit that booth several times to deal with the inevitable jet lag). In addition to Lexmark, other familiar companies like 4R, Netsuite, NEC, Magento, Oracle, Samsung, ShopperTrak, PCMS, Verifone, and the NRF ARTS group, had a presence there – along with many others. The technology side also featured an eCommerce bootcamp, an international focus track, the France Pavilion (featuring solutions providers from the French tech community), the PayPal Chill & Charge pavilion, and the Dell Champagne Bar (no explanation needed). Noticeably missing however were the 'big booth' displays one typically sees from the likes of Microsoft, SAP, IBM, Intel, and other tier-one companies. My own opinion (for what it's worth) is that these companies might want to think about getting involved in this growing event – the UK and European market is certainly worth the effort.

At about halfway back in the hall, the scene suddenly changed to the physical retail environment, the Retail Design Expo. Perhaps I can paint a mental picture for you; the displays were much more visually appealing, with dramatic LED lighting, lots of chrome and glass, beautiful faux store displays, and definitely non-techie booth staffs.

And there you have it: the digital side, not especially visually appealing but definitely the main focus, and the physical side, all glamour, dash, and flair. The two halves need to blend harmoniously in the real retail world, and I couldn't help but to think that although the design booths certainly had lots of elements from the digital world (for example, the aforementioned robots) the tech booths should hire the design booth designers. It was all a nifty analogy for the challenges retailers have serving the anytime/anywhere digitally-enabled consumer.

The conference

This year, the organisers brought on a technology conference coordinator to manage the content and speakers for the breakout sessions, and the result was very positive. Olympia has two meeting rooms where most of the conference presentations were held, a big improvement over the exposition floor presentation areas in prior RBTE events.

Areas of focus included the 21st-century shopping experience, omnichannel, digital payments and security, HR strategies, international expansion, supply chain, and analytics. Retail Design Expo also had one large presentation area at the back of the hall, reasonably distanced from the noise and hubbub of the display booths.

My part in the conference was as a panellist in two discussions.

The first discussion, on the question: "What will omnichannel retailing look like in 2017?" The panel was MC'ed by ARTS director emeritus Richard Mader, and included Matthew Stead, multichannel director at Pets At Home, Michel Koch, eCommerce director for UK & International at Maplin Electronics, Annabel Kilner, Head of UK for Made.com, and me.

In a nutshell, the panellists defined retailing in 2017 as a world of engaged and information-empowered consumers who want relevant solutions to their lifestyle needs. Consumers will use digital content and social media to not only get information, but also to provide it for others who are searching for similar solutions. The store will be brought into line with eCommerce capabilities and mobile will be everywhere – for both consumers and retail employees. Not only is this going to happen, but in many retail enterprises it is happening now. The fundamental takeaway from the panel was that how shoppers choose to shop in the future is bound to change, and so in the next two years retailers will focus on redesigning their businesses to be able to deliver the brand's value wherever, whenever, and however each customer wants it. And that will be accomplished with information and (sometimes flashy new) technology.

My second session was a panel discussion on the topic "Improving The Customer Experience And Security Of Mobile Payments", hosted by payments expert Mark McMurtrie, and including Tesco's manager of digital payment strategies Paul Haberer, Stephane Jacquis, VP of solution & product marketing for Ingenico Group, and the PCI Security Standards Council's international director, Jeremy King.

Netting out that panel discussion, the group consensus was that there is undeniably a lot for the industry still to accomplish. From a customer experience perspective, the jury is still out on what the most favoured technologies will be. From a security standpoint, there's still much work to be done by retailers and their payment processing partners. And so I for one expect that we'll hear much more on the subject at RBTE 2016.

Go to London

Of course, London is a draw all by itself, but the RBTE conference is good and getting better, and it offers the chance to learn more about UK-style retailing. The event offers an important reminder that all commerce is global. And when the conference is over, there's always the opportunity to go to Oxford Street to check out some of the world's great retailers (I for one went to my perennial favourite John Lewis to buy some gifts for the grandkids).

So I highly recommend that you find a way to attend future RBTE events. You’ll be glad you did, and hopefully the March London weather will cooperate, as it did this year – thankfully!

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