Retail technology view from the top: Accenture's Martin Digby

As new systems and digital capability continue to evolve the way retailers run their businesses, Essential Retail is gauging the views of the sector's main figureheads, via a series of exclusive interviews. This week, it's the turn of Accenture managing director of retail strategy for UK & Ireland, Martin Digby.

It has been a busy week at managing consultancy and technology services group Accenture. The company announced on Monday that is has entered into an agreement to acquire retail strategy firm Javelin Group, a move that came just days after the publication of Accenture's annual report into the state of the retailing industry.

Full terms of the potential acquisition have not been disclosed, but the key message from both parties was that the combined businesses will be able to help consumer goods brands and retailers "accelerate their digital transformation".

Once the deal is completed, the Accenture Strategy division expects to be able to benefit from a broader range of digital capabilities, which it argues will be used to shape innovative retail strategies for its clients.

Lots of the conversation surrounding the deal centred on how to help businesses – and the retail industry, in particular – continue to embark on their respective digital journeys. Retail is certainly undergoing something of a reset moment, with new cloud technology, software-as-a-service models and digital/mobile in-store strategies at the heart of what many companies are trying to achieve, following years of building their empires around store estates.

Adoption of new technology and the use of established and emerging social media platforms alike is changing shopper behaviour at a rapid rate, and Martin Digby, managing director of retail strategy for Accenture UK & Ireland, told Essential Retail "the transformation won't stop".

"There is always a catalyst for change when something is driven by consumers," he explained.

"And the customer is now making more choices and is exposed to an increased number of influences, so you may say the pace of that change has picked up – but it's not going to stop."

Offering advice on how retailers must set themselves up to succeed, Digby added: "The key to success is asking 'do I really understand what the customer is looking for?', or 'do I understand the behavioural change?'.

"What is the problem to fix today and what will be the problem tomorrow that I need to work on today? These issues are what retailers need to understand and they can do this by investing in some of the analytics and data capabilities that allow them to see what's really going on."

Digby's comments come following the release of the results from Accenture's Seamless Retail Survey 2015, which identified a number of gaps between consumers' retail expectations, and the ability of retailers to deliver what customers are looking for.

Findings from the survey of 750 UK consumers indicated that 40% of shoppers found it easy to complete a purchase using a mobile device, and 38% cited in-store shopping the aspect of the shopping experience that was most in need of an upgrade. People are increasingly shopping in multiple ways – be it store, PC or mobile device – and the survey suggests they do not expect to encounter different experiences across those channels.

Accenture's report found 87% of respondents expect a retailer's prices to be the same in-store and online, which was up 10% on last year's figure. Additionally, 57% said they want to always access the same promotions online that they have in-store.

With so many surveys informing companies operating in the sector what they should and should not be doing, perhaps there is an argument that retailers need to seize control of their customer relationships.

"Anyone who ignores the customer ignores the customer at their peril," warned Digby.

"I don't think it's about taking control, it's about getting into what's really happening and what's driving the behaviour, and it's about understanding the customer even more. What's going on online and what are they doing on mobile that complements what you see them doing in the store? It's about understanding rather than trying to grasp control."

And what do retailer strategies in a digital age now look like? How do businesses need to set themselves up to meet the change agenda head on?

"For a start, don't make [strategies of] five years," said Digby.

"They have to be absolutely clear where they are going on that three-, four- or whatever length plan they have, but they need to build course correction agility into that strategy, allowing them to stay relevant."

He added that many retailers are doing this by incubating ideas and using "start-up thinking" to help drive customer propositions, exemplified by the plethora of innovation hubs and technology labs now being opened, not to mention the industry's growing desire to host hackathons and experiement with new systems.

The UK retail industry has seen some significant structural change over the last ten years, with the consumer electronics and entertainment sectors, in particular, now much more streamlined than before – partly due to the growth in digitisation and the emergence of online, but arguably mainly because retail leaders failed to identify new consumer trends quickly enough.

So if retail is constantly changing and businesses need to prepare accordingly, what might be the next big area of change within the industry?

"All retail sectors change; the customer doesn't just buy in one sector. Across all sectors, people are looking for solutions to things rather than products," explained Digby.

"If you're looking at the electronics sector, for example, you're actually interested in the outcome from a retailer, not necessarily the product that produces the outcome. I think we are going to see how retailers can provide outcomes – not just selling the products. It's not necessarily retail specific but it's going to be a really interesting part of what comes across in retail."

It would appear we are operating in an era of perennial transformational change, and retailer flexibility will be required to meet and conquer the various challenges this poses to their futures.

"You have to be agile to keep pace with what's going on with the customer's experience set."

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Accenture UK

Javelin Group