Stay One Step Ahead: Recapping Retail Week Live

How can a retailer get, and remain, one step ahead when it comes to retail technology? This was the key question I and other retail technology experts discussed during our panel session at Retail Week Live in London. On the panel were Julian Burnett, the former CIO of House of Fraser; Jonathan Wall, CDO at Misguided; and Mike Francis, the Head of Digital Transformation for Shop Direct. Henry Wallop, an author and journalist for The Daily Telegraph who specializes in consumer affairs, served as chair for what was a quite far-ranging discussion.

We touched upon a number of key subjects, leading with: What do customers really want from retailers today? How can retailers move off concentrating on “channels” to focusing on customers? What challenges do they face in linking multiple channels to the customer journey, and what technologies are they leveraging to leap those hurdles? And, what technologies are looming on the horizon that retailers ought most to anticipate and appraise?

The fact our single panel covered such a great deal of ground, points to the complexity of the challenges ahead.

One clear consensus among presenters at the event, was that consumer shopping habits are evolving rapidly, with retail channels blurring across one another. This makes it difficult for retailers to predict which channels will find primacy with their audience.

Other gleanings from the two days’ worth of presentations and discussions:

  • Retailers seem excited by the promise of technologies such as AI, machine learning, VR/AR, bots, visual search, IoT and blockchain.  Yet many of these may only represent a very small level of (early) adoption, or generate such a hew and cry of faddish interest from customers because of their status as “shiny new objects.” They serve to distract retailers from a more important focus: fixing the entrenched problems plaguing their existing commerce infrastructures before adding more "widgetry."

  • Bridging digital and physical shopper experiences was, in fact, a recurrent theme throughout the event. Online sales growth is forecast to be only in the single digits for the first time on record this year, forcing retailers to consider where their growth will come from. This makes the omnichannel customer journey more central than ever, as in-store shopper baskets are still three times larger than online.

  • More retail stores were shuttered in 2017 than any other year on record, according to one presentation.

  • The virtual marketplace model exemplified by eBay is surging, as Forrester predicts 65 percent of all e-commerce sales will be driven by marketplaces by 2022. This presents yet another challenge (and opening) for retailers.

  • “Digitization” is segueing into “entertainmentization,” as delivering a unique and entertaining customer experience is seen as paramount; a simple digital experience will no longer suffice.

Lastly, it was striking that, despite pervasive conversation and presentation about the importance of data, I observed only passing mentions of GDPR. One might conclude many retailers haven’t yet grasped its implications or possible impact, even with May 25 rushing headlong toward them.

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