Retail technology change needs to be driven by the board

A panel of retail technology experts have called for technology change to be driven by retail directors.

Talking at the Buying & Merchandising Summit in London this week, Simon Harrow, CEO at Elevaate and former COO of Kiddicare, said: "It's about your company culturally accepting you're trying to innovate."

Harrow said when Kiddicare was bought by Morrisons in 2011, the reason the partnership broke down was because of the cultural difference between the two retailers.

"Morrisons were great store operators and we were an online business," he said. "And they just fundamentally didn’t believe they needed to go online, that was why it took so long for that deal with Ocado to happen, because culturally they weren’t ready to make that leap."

Harrow said there is a technology shift  in retail at the moment to move away from stacks of IT systems towards ecosystems of small technology solutions.

"No longer will a stack exist where you remove a component like Jenga, where it wobbles and becomes unstable, but a group of technologies will come together – systems for checkout, merchandising, PIM – and as a business this gives you agility to respond very quickly without frustrations."

"But the blocker is retailers who are adverse to risk," he added. "The change has to be driven from the top – this new technology is relatively easy to trial, but it's about having the confidence to take that plunge."

A lack of technology knowledge at the top

Also on the panel at the Buying & Merchandising Summit was IT director of White Stuff, Julie Price. She said businesses need someone who understands IT on the board to have these conversations about new technologies.

"There's a lack of knowledge," she said. "And it's not that there are people sat at the top who don’t want to do the right things, they just don’t know what the right things are in this market."

Price, who has recently encouraged White Stuff to adopt tablet and lightweight laptops which allow staff to become more mobile, noted that traditional retail technology has not changed in recent years.

"The merchandising and buying systems haven't moved on that much in 30 years and then all of a sudden eCommerce has come along and everyone has tried to do something with eCommerce."

Price said retailers have jumped in head-first to develop a game-changing eCommerce channel and it has not always gone according to plan. "I've seen some retailers trying to fix their stock systems and it's a disaster," she said.

"Retailers have to invite people to have the conversations at the top. They're not going to stop it, but it's the fear of doing it incorrectly."

Ben Hawksley, director of merchandise and planning at lingerie retailer Hunkemoller, also said change needs to come from the top-down.

"When I first joined eCommerce, it was seen as a dirty word, as an irritation to do things outside the normal process," he explained. "But the culture changed in the business from a senior level down.

"If anyone is to have success in omnichannel there needs to be real focus from the CEO-down to make sure everyone sees its importance in their everyday lives."

Hands-off approach

Meanwhile, former eCommerce and multichannel director at Maplin and Marks & Spencer, Michel Koch, said he watched previous CEOs change their mentality about digital as eCommerce became a more important part of the business.

"They then acknowledge online is a key component of store performance," he said.

But while Koch said having a digitally engaged CEO is good to get the retailer thinking about technology, at the same time retailers need a CEO to have a hands-off approach and to delegate digital decisions to the technologists and IT chiefs, trusting that they have the knowledge to create change. 

"CEOs should focus on the big picture objectives, joining the dots between business and technology, and leave the details up to expert teams," added Koch.