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.