Retail technology view from the top: Zebra Technologies' Mark Thomson

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 Zebra Technologies' director of retail and hospitality for EMEA, Mark Thomson.

With the growing uptake of smart utilities devices in the home, such as Hive from British Gas, which allow homeowners to control their heating remotely via a mobile device, there is evidence that consumers are growing in confidence when it comes to using connected technologies for every-day processes.

This is just one example of how the Internet of Things (IoT) is gaining momentum, and global tech intelligence provider IDC recently estimated that these networks connecting devices or "things" to enable autonomous provisioning, management and monitoring could be a $4.6 trillion market by 2018.

It is easy to see how these emerging networks could impact retail, and vendors have been quick to latch on to the IoT term as a way of marketing their services to the industry.

It's not just a marketing gimmick, though, with IDC among a host of analyst groups confident it can help transform the way business is done in retail, manufacturing, telecoms and utilities, and financial services. And Dixons Carphone sees the concept as a key part of its future success, too, with last year's Dixons Retail and Carphone Warehouse merger of the mobile and electricals markets touted as the "connected world becoming reality".

Mark Thomson, director of retail and hospitality for Zebra Technologies, believes the area of staff management, and devices used in-stores for staff communication, product/stock availability and building optimisation, is where IoT will play its initial role in retailing.

"Brave retailers will put it out to customers but most retailers tend to like to trial and test new technologies on areas they understand better and can control better," he explained to Essential Retail.

"A lot of retailers now have technology in-store, including checkouts, ruggedized devices in staff hands for stock management, tablet computers for assisted selling and supervisors might have smartphones. Retailers are now looking seriously at ways of managing all of these assets and having the ability in real time to control them and use the data generated by these multiple assets."

Thomson describes this use of IoT as "providing a single dashboard for the IT department to control what happens in their store better", and as many retailers – particular those in the grocery sector – start to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he suggests "a different strategy" is required to manage and monitor the deployment and efficiency of these tools.

"It's not such a step change as you might think: retailers are already doing remote management but there'll be a lot more of it over the next few years."

The Zebra Technologies retail-facing director, who was responsible for the same market at Motorola Solutions prior to its acquisition by Zebra last year, says he is receiving an increasing number of enquiries from retailers about using new technologies to recognise customers in-store and analysing how they engage with brands in a shop.

As with all new trends in technology, there is no single way of utilising IoT within the retail space.

In addition to embracing its potential for internal operations and staff management, Zebra sees significant growth opportunities for combining connected devices such as beacons and RFID tags to gain a better understanding of customer behaviours in the store environment. Thomson says this could shake up certain traditional retail practices.

"One of the challenges IoT poses to traditional loyalty programmes is the fact they now have to work real time and be based on today's context, otherwise customers will become dissatisfied and go somewhere else."

There will also be potential, he added, for new developments around the retail store infrastructure itself.

"Knowing how many customers are in store, and where they are – should we turn down the lighting?" he queried.

"Some retailers do this on fixed times, but why don't we do this based on the number of customers in a store? What about real-time access to information about the temperature of goods in transit, to make sure these products are kept in in the right way and distribution hubs know exactly what condition those items are in?"

It seems there are multiple ways that the power of IoT can be harnessed to aid retailers' operations, but whose responsibility within the organisation will it be to manage these deployments?

The structure of the IT department and the wider executive team within retail is shifting, and the rapid evolution of technology is requiring businesses to find new talent that can understand and process data, and make sure their organisations are using this information in the most strategic way. Indeed, Benjy Meyer, Marks & Spencer's head of operations for M& and digital stores, suggested at an event in London last week that finding the next generation of digital talent should be high on the wider industry's agenda.

"Rather than a centre of information, the IT department is now becoming the centre of innovation," explained Thomson.

"It's not the CIO as we know it – it is now the chief innovation officer. There is a huge growth in what used to be called business analysts, who are basically the staff who work halfway between IT and the rest of the business, such as marketing, merchandising and operations – they are becoming increasingly important."

Retailers are also bringing in chief customer officers and customer experience officers, which Thomson said shows the industry is starting, at a very senior level, to focus on the customer experience and "effectively making the customer a priority for the business as a whole".

Budget airline Ryanair has recently heralded the benefits of adopting a more customer-centric approach, while Sainsbury's – although announcing a number of job losses in other head office divisions – is a supermarket that has created hundreds of digital jobs in London and Coventry to focus on some of the key challenges generated by the growth of new data streams and the different ways the new generation of shoppers interact with brands.

"Sainsbury's is just one example of how retailers are understanding that it's not about the store vs online, and that some of the IoT technologies are allowing businesses to create the data you get online in a store environment, noted Thomson.

"We're almost there with that kind of granularity in-store. The next question for retailers would be; are we ready to use that amount of data, how are we going to use that data and how careful should we be about ensuring any use of that data is tailored and not too invasive?"

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