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#RetailEXPO19 Know what tech is for before investing say retailers

By Peter Crush

Technology is all too often imported into the retail space without really understanding what it’s for, or what purpose it needs to solve. This was one of the main conclusions from a panel of experts speaking about the utilisation of technology on day two of Retail Expo.

Critical of firms for being wowed by 'novelty rather than function', Duncan Clapman, retail technologist at Espirit Digital said: “Technology has to be there to solve an actual issue – we first need to consider what it is the tech is trying to do. I see so many implementations of technology solutions but without any thought about what they really need it for.”

This was the reason – concurred Emma Jones of European retail operations at Mulberry - why the luxury store hadn’t been tempted to install large digital screens. “While they might be great to show products off, that just wouldn’t be what our customers want,” she said. “Our view is people are surrounded by screens in their everyday lives; it’s the quality of our sales staff that matters most, and the dialogues they are able to have.”

One of Mulberry’s most recent technology solutions has instead been to introduce handheld payment devices – as the pain point it identified was that time poor, busy people didn’t want to stand waiting in queues at a till. Now there are no tills in its stores.

McDonald's in Cricklewood
McDonald's in Cricklewood

By contrast, for Mark Jessop, global deployment director (lead international operated markets) at McDonalds, technology has literally been taking off in recent years – but all because it suits a customer as well as corporate need.

“We’re rolling out digital menu boards, outside kiosks, standalone screens in drive-thrus, as well as other outdoor digital solutions,” he said. “Our latest concept is to start to personalise outdoor drive-thru screens - for instance to suggest foods based on the weather, or according to what the same customer has ordered before.”

The latter idea, he said, is the first application of capturing customer data – something the fast-food giant has surprisingly never done before. “Until recently our business has very much been about letting customers buy and then leave as fast as possible, without really knowing much about individual buying trends,” he said. “Through data capture – but still done so it also makes it easier for customers – we’ll be able to rise to the next level of customer satisfaction.”

Jessop agreed however, that in all conversations about technology, the ‘why we’re doing it’ aspect needs the most thought-through. “Some customers still just want to get in and out, so for them we’ve introduced self-service screens.” He added: “It’s all about being relevant.”

All three agreed testing and then proving a concept was the best way to get sign-off for technology projects.

“Our tactic is always to try things on a small scale at first,” said Jones. “Even the smallest demonstration that something will work is usually enough to get sign off. Then," she added: "having a proven track-record for implementing technology usually gives the green light for other ideas to be agreed on later down the road.”