The introduction of self checkouts across the retail industry and a more mobile approach to selling in-store are set to be major developments in retail over the coming years, according to CEO of BT Expedite Rich Lowe.
He also expects customer-facing systems and applications to account for retailers’ main source of investment in technology, as businesses continue to keep an eye on the bottom line due to capital constraints.
“We are going to see this more and more in the general merchandising space – not just grocery,” he tells Retail Gazette.
“This is about ensuring that where high volume and low price transactions are taking place, customers are moved through at the most efficient cost.”
Lowe, who has been CEO of retail technology solutions provider BT Expedite since 2008 having previously held the role of the company’s Finance Director earlier in the decade, is confident that this is a growth area.
Indeed, he reveals that his company is currently working with a large non-food retailer in the UK concerning the launch of self-service machines, which have been so successfully implemented by the country’s major grocers in recent years.
Perhaps inevitably due to their vast turnovers and extensive technology budgets, the Tescos, Asdas and Sainsbury’s of this world have led the way with self service, but it appears other high street companies are set to follow suit.
Lowe states: “In terms of productivity and efficiency with technology, the grocers have probably been ahead of the curve.
“But across our range of customers, whether it’s Co-op Food, WHSmith, Mothercare or Burberry, there are similar challenges that technology needs to overcome.”
Research published last August showed that retailers’ capacity for IT and technology investment since the 2008 downturn has been significantly impeded, with Chief Financial Officers following strategies that are more cautious and efficient than costly and extravagant.
Martec International’s IT in Retail report, which is sponsored by BT Expedite, indicated that tech budgets may never return to pre-recessionary levels.
“We have seen that IT spend as a percentage of total turnover has dropped from 1.3 to 1.1 per cent over the last two years,” Lowe comments
“People are watching every penny at the moment – certainly cutting back on major catalogue and refurbishment investment.”
This does not mean that spending on retail technology is completely drying up, though, as it is still vital to change with the times and meet the needs of today’s time-poor and increasingly demanding customers.
“Retailers are making a lot more investment on smaller, more tactical changes, where they can get quick wins,” Lowe explains.
Much of this relates back to the fact that a strong multichannel set-up is the key to a healthy future for businesses, and it is clear that mobile phone apps, e-commerce and the joining up of the two with in-store activity are essential areas of investment for all retail sectors.
A number of companies were quick to jump on the bandwagon when mobile commerce became a possibility, with a flurry of smartphone apps appearing on the market in the early days of the platform.
It could be argued that many of them were unaware of their exact requirements from the technology, and Lowe suggests there are a certain key issues firms should consider before expanding their multichannel offering with services and applications.
“It’s about knowing what the purpose of the application is - is it to drive customer loyalty, drive promotions, or is it to do both?” Lowe notes.
“The real challenge for retailers is going to be how they tie back their customer relationship management into core strategy and link customers to the multichannel world – making the online and offline world one consistent shopping experience.”
Of course any successful retailer relies on people as well as technology, and the combination of the two is likely to become a more frequent feature of the retail landscape in the years ahead.
Lowe admits that companies are approaching him to ask how they can incorporate such services, and this is sure to fuel demand for equipment that takes store staff from behind the till and straight to the customer.
Like a number of those working in the retail technology world, such as Global Bay UK Managing Director Justin Coward, the BT Expedite CEO is confident that mobile point of sale as a form of in-store technology will grow considerably in the near future.
“A lot of investment focus has moved away from core tech tools – at POS and within the supply chain – to things such as systems, applications and devices that help serve customers or drive productivity,” he adds.
“Anything retailers can do around handheld terminals, tablet devices and assisted selling will ensure retailers are absolutely maximising productivity of in-store staff – and we think this is the way the future is moving.”
So despite the rapid growth in m-commerce and e-commerce channels, Lowe argues that retailers should forget about developing their traditional bricks and mortar stores at their peril.
“Retailers just can’t afford to neglect in-store tech because investment in this area is required if they are to provide the seamless customer experience everyone is looking for,” he states.
“Lines between the off-line and online worlds are becoming blurrier – retailers should not even think of them as separate, they just need to think of the customer across all channels.”