Multichannel, omni-channel, c-tailing, total retailing, u-commerce, seamless systems; whatever you want to call the emerging reality of modern retail, it is clear that things are changing.
During the two days of the Retail Business Technology Expo and Cards & Payments Solutions (RBTE) event which took place this week in London, that new form of retail was called a lot of different things by suppliers but they all agreed that retailers are having to answer some serious questions about how to adapt to this new world view.
The almost endless possibilities of mobile, NFC, clientelling, digital promotions and so on, are enough to make a veteran CEO’s head spin, and conversely make a technology provider’s mouth water, but most exhibitors would argue that innovation is no longer an option.
Steve Rothwell, CEO of digital voucher specialists Eagle Eye Solutions, compares the challenge facing retailers to the one of natural selection, or to paraphrase Charles Darwin; it is not the strongest or most intelligent who will survive but those most adaptable to change.
“I think the mentality of bricks and mortar retailers has to change. They have always lived in a world where they could wait a year to make a decision on technology but they do not have that time now because their online rivals can do something in a week”, Rothwell told Retail Gazette.
The sense of accelerated evolution was palpable at the Earls Court conference hall, from the dizzying array of cutting edge gizmos on the exhibitors stands, to the warnings of being left behind emanating from the speeches in the lecture halls.
Christopher Withers, Head of Smarter Commerce at IBM UK & Ireland, set out the demands of the empowered consumer in his presentation on Tuesday, and explained how the retail store will have to fundamentally change to accommodate their desires.
IBM’s research shows some positive trends for stores, such as the fact that trust in retailers is rising and that retail stores still have the greatest influence on consumers when researching products, but Withers argued that traders could still communicate better across their multiple channels.
The empowered consumer, according to Withers, wants an in-store service that is compelling, expert, convenient and personalised but it is easier said than done for a retailer to pick the correct technology to enable this kind of offer, especially when the speed of change is accelerating so quickly.
And this is why so many firms at the expo were promoting their managed services, as if saying: why worry about all of this confusing and continually changing stuff when we can do it for you?
It is an interesting trend that some of the biggest suppliers to retail have acquired managed services firms in recent months to boost their appeal; hardware and payment solutions firm Verifone taking over Commidea and Mastercard buying Datacash being two examples.
Alan Moss, Vice-President of Marketing WEMEA at Verifone, said: “The complexity and variety of all the payment options now available makes it difficult for a retailer to manage these systems alone, but that is where we come in.”
“What people really like about managed service is that it takes them out of the big investment upfront, they instead buy into what they want now but do not have to get stuck with a technology which may go out of date.”
It is very difficult to know what technology investments will be worthwhile for the future and it was certainly true that not all of the eye-catching front-end technologies on display at the event were wholly convincing.
For every impressive mobile & tablet POS or interactive digital display, there was a far from realistic augmented reality demonstration or a slightly creepy facial recognition device.
All of these systems will be altered, improved or made redundant given enough time but most platform providers at the show argued that the back-office systems that are being created now are designed to stand the test of time.
There was so much variety and choice on display at RBTE but standardisation was also a key theme of the show, whether that be in seamless service levels delivered by retailers or in terms of the whole structure of their systems.
Brad Poulson, who heads up retail innovation at IT services firm Wipro, told Retail Gazette that there is not enough standardisation of back office solutions in the industry and blamed retailers’ tendency to believe that their company is unique for the hotch-potch way most back-end systems have been put together.
He said that what was now needed was the kind of systems overhaul that many companies have not undertaken for decades, in order to install a platform that connects all divisions of the business.
K3’s Head of Business Development Tony Byrant say that it is no longer good enough merely speaking to IT Directors when you are selling a back office system, you need all levels of the business involved in the discussions because these solutions cut right across a company.
He also says that marketing and customer management have become a lot more important, and can no longer sit in a separate silo with distinct software solutions.
Like many others at the RBTE, Bryant believes that retailers need to embark on fundamental change in order to properly utilise emerging technological advances and to keep up with their competitors.
It seems that retail is in the process of breaking down barriers; in the way it communicates with customers, in terms of front-end innovation and in the processes that allow it to operate within this new omni-channel environment.
Or should that be c-tailing, or multichannel, or u-commerce?
The terms may be difficult to pin down but the challenges are there for all to see.