Retail technology view from the top: Manhattan's Craig Sears-Black

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 Manhattan Associates' UK managing director, Craig Sears-Black.

A recent RBTE 2016 steering committee meeting involving representatives from a selection of the UK's largest retailers brought to light the need for board-level buy-in when introducing new technology and innovative features to a retail business.

Senior figures from the likes of Asda, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and White Stuff were clear that for IT-led decisions to be implemented in a retail organisation – and, more importantly, for them to become successful – directors need to understand the overall impact these moves will have on the entire business and then build the necessary culture to allow them to flourish.

Craig Sears-Black, UK managing director of supply chain software provider Manhattan Associates, says the same is true when introducing in-store systems to improve customer experience.

Staff education when introducing new technology needs "constant attention" and more of a focus than most retailers currently provide, according to Sears-Black, but for that to happen the whole enterprise needs to be engaged in the strategy.

"The technology on its own won't do very much unless the staff are there to be able to engage with the customer and use the data available to them," he told Essential Retail.

"It's always a key part of any programme when introducing new technology: to upskill and train the shop associates. But it's not just the store associates. In any sort of change programme you have to rely on every single level of management – and that includes store associate, store manager, regional manager, all the way up the retail chain."

Sears-Black says this approach can help ensure there is one common way of working and everyone adopts that method.

"Where there's a lack of compliance, store management need to be aware and be able to initiate re-training and action," he added.

The RBTE steering committee meeting also touched upon how retailers are digitising their stores to help make them more relevant to the modern shopper. There was significant discussion related the evolution of the self-checkout and how some businesses are imagining a future where customers use their mobiles to scan and pay for products, walking out of the store without interacting with any employees or point of sale systems.

While that may be the case in some retail outlets of the future, there are plenty of industry players looking to deploy methods somewhere in between the existing norm and this forward-looking frictionless model where no staff are involved in the shopping process.

Assisted selling through tablet devices, a service for which Manhattan now provides software to help retailers access company-wide inventory levels when communicating with shoppers in the aisles, is gaining momentum in UK retailing. Sears-Black says that the advent of such technology means the role of store staff is changing to become more service-oriented, although there "is no one-size-fits-all" model for the industry.

Luxury retail store associates will need to be highly trained in specific services to access new booking systems and customer transaction history, he said, but for fast fashion retailers there is a need to use existing technology to gain an upper hand on younger, knowledgeable customers who enter stores armed with so much information.

"Most customers will be well connected with a knowledge of prices and Amazon deals, for example, but it is essential the shop assistant still knows more than they do," Sears-Black explained.

"If a product is not in stock, the shop assistant should be able to say 'the item's five miles up the road, how would you like us to get it to you?' That's the sort of dialogue needing to be very quick and not terribly elaborate and not requiring a mass of corporate data underneath, while providing absolute visibility of stock position throughout the whole network. That's a value-add to the consumer so they don't have to go on their iPhone and check where else they can get that item."

Some trends that emerged from the recent pre-Christmas sales rush at the turn of the month, or the Black Friday-instigated "Cyber Weekend" as it has also been labelled, include faster growth in online shopping during the period, compared to in-store shopping. However, the boundaries are blurred because there was also a significant rise in the number of shoppers ordering goods online but picking up in a store.

Research group CACI argued that click & collect was "a big winner" during this year's Black Friday period, with the number of people using the service growing by 33% compared to 2014. Click & collect spend was also 7% higher in 2015, with CACI saying that the 4% of UK shoppers making it an integral part of their Black Friday shopping spent an average of £90.

Sears-Black says that trends such as these highlight why the store is an important stage for retailers operating across multiple channels. But there is clearly still work to do to maintain brand consistency as this sales channel continues to grow in prominence with UK customers.

"People want to get away from the hustle and bustle of fighting for goods on the shelves in the shop towards securing the product and going to pick it up and, perhaps, trying it on before they take it away," he commented.

"It highlights the importance of the store in creating a slick, frictionless experience when people come to visit. It should be an enjoyable experience."

He added: "You can spend huge amounts on store windows, creating fantastic displays, spending £100,000s on experience and then you're sending people down to a dingy click & collect area in a back room where they are waiting for 30 mins to collect products.

"That's paying lip service to click & collect. The whole experience needs to be consistent and reflect the brand."

Manhattan Associates will be exhibiting at RBTE 2016, which takes place at London Olympia on 9-10 March 2016. Click here to register for your free event ticket.

Manhattan and Essential Retail will also be co-hosting a roundtable at the same venue, on 9 March, covering many of the themes addressed by Sears-Black, in the above interview. Please contact Essential Retail editor, Ben Sillitoe, if you'd be keen to join the event

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