RBTE 2017: What's on retailers' minds?

Each decision in retail should be made with a view to how it will impact the end customer, and the businesses operating in the sector must ensure they move quicker than ever before to keep pace with the demanding nature of the modern shopper.

Those were commonly-held views of senior retailers from some of the largest organisations in the UK, who gathered in London last week to assess the state of the industry and map out some of the key themes to monitor for the 12 months ahead. The event, which was hosted by RBTE and Essential Retail, brought together a cross section of retailers covering grocery, homewares, fashion and much more.

Retail is a challenging industry and one where the emergence of new competition is and has always been a fact of life, but during this time of digital transformation and with companies such as Amazon, until very recently, prioritising market share over profitability, the perceived rules of customer service and selling to consumers have shifted. Staving off profit and margin erosion has become an increasingly challenging exercise, while there are now many more platforms on which to serve the customer.

Businesses operating in the sector often talk about legacy IT systems and cumbersome store estates holding them back, especially in comparison to some of the digital-first enterprises to have have emerged over the last 20 years. The likes of Amazon, Asos, eBay and Net-a-Porter have made waves online, presenting people with a completely new way to shop minus many of the traditional operational overheads.

Some of the discussion that took place at last week's meeting suggested the term “legacy system” does not necessarily refer to something very old any more – the pace of technological change and the apparent desire by shoppers to try new things and shop around means a website or a store concept launched just three years ago can quickly become outdated, it was argued.

Describing the current environment, Marcel Borlin, chief technology officer at floorings retailer Carpetright, said: “Retailers can't afford to get it wrong, especially with social media in wide use.

“You now need to be 100% right, 100% of the time – which is different to the old retailing model.”

He added: “There's more of a concerted focus on how to take care of the customer. You can't wait two years to launch something because the customer moves so quickly now.”

Comments were made as representatives from retailers and adjacent business sectors, including Asda, Brakes, Eurostar, House of Fraser, John Lewis and Waitrose, met to discuss the state of the retail industry and the common challenges faced. The businesses comprise the RBTE 2017 steering committee, and they gathered at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel in central London to help underline the major themes that should be addressed at next year's RBTE – Europe's largest end-to-end retail solutions exhibition and conference – which runs on 8-9 May 2017.

With less than eight months to go until RBTE 2017 opens its doors to the retail world, once again at London Olympia, it was a suitable time to hear from the industry and find out how the people at the heart of it assess the current marketplace and how they plan to keep customers happy and run their organisations in the months and years ahead.

RBTE is not just for retailers, however. The technology on display in the exhibition aisles also meets the needs of hospitality, travel and other consumer-facing industries, and this year's steering committee meeting included Neil Roberts, head of digital at Eurostar, who argued that competition for customers is clearly not a challenge unique to retail and e-tail.

“We all face huge change in customer expectation – we no longer compete within our industry but with the best customer experiences in the world,” he explained.

“Our challenge is how to evolve our processes and our technology to enable our people to meet those expectations; these challenges are common to both retail and travel.”

Dealing with peaks in demand is one such challenge common among all customer-facing organisations. And on that note, much of the meeting's discussion centred on Black Friday and the online shopping bonanza that has established itself as a regular fixture on the retail calendar at the end of November/start of December.

Originally a US-inspired, discount-led shopping day to encourage consumers back to the shops – and to primarily buy electrical goods – following the Thanksgiving holiday, the weekend of markdown offers is increasingly being used by UK retailers as a pre-Christmas sales driver. However, it has not been universally welcomed by retailers on British shores, primarily because of the operational challenges associated with dealing with spikes in eCommerce demand, difficulties meeting customer delivery expectations and the overall impact this new shopping tradition has on the all-important Christmas period.

With the start of retail's so-called golden quarter – when the majority of money is made each year – just a matter of days away, it was perhaps inevitable that Black Friday would play a part in the discussions during the meeting. It was clear from the debate that some retailers are thinking very hard about how heavily they should get involved in Black Friday, but there was a feeling consumers now expect to be exposed to deals at this time of year. It will be up to individual retailers to manage their respective customers' expectations and carefully plan for the newly shaped peak season in retail.

On the subject of this year's RBTE, which took place in March, it was noted that the show successfully conveyed the trends and challenges associated with today's retail landscape. Waitrose's customer relationship manager, Charles de Clerck, commented: “The event struck a really good balance – with the accompanying Retail Design Expo and Retail Digital Signage Expo it felt like a connected retail experience.

“There was a lot of innovation – not just talk. There were actual solutions to the challenges we are facing.

He added: “We sometimes find the technology exhibitors at events like RBTE have an answer to your challenges that they do not see themselves, and are not actually pitching.”

As for the topics in demand for the conference theatre sessions at next year's RBTE, the committee suggested they were keen to hear more about the internet of things and its impact on retail, as well as seeing greater attention paid to the changing role of the physical store in a digital age.

New fulfilment and fast delivery methods, and the challenges and solutions particularly related to the returns process, were all issues the retailers would like to learn about in extended detail – and they happen to be areas of focus for many of them. The RBTE conference team will be working hard over the coming months to ensure the themes are represented in the theatres of London Olympia come May 8-9 2017 – and Essential Retail will stay on top of the latest developments to keep the industry up to speed with the innovation in this space.

The RBTE 2017 steering committee:

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RBTE 2017