RBTE in review: robots, reboots and retail’s need for responsiveness

Two days out of the office at RBTE brought to light how retailers are looking to build more adaptability into their operations, and the event showed plenty of vendors are willing to lend them a hand.

Flexibility, adaptability and agility. After decades of using the same systems in their stores and to support their supply chains, these three words represent the key operational goals for today’s retailers navigating their way through a digitally-enabled era of commerce.

This message was loud and clear from the multiple RBTE conference sessions attended by Retail Connections, on 2-3 May, at London’s Olympia.

Survival of the most agile

It was a rhetoric emphasised by ex-Amazon UK managing director and current Asos chairman Brian McBride’s presentation, entitled ‘Evolve or Die’, which highlighted how the retailers set for success in the future will be those that are best able to respond to and move with the times.

Paraphrasing Charles Darwin, he said survival of the fittest in the current business world will come down to those who are the most adaptable and who keep abreast of trends, as well as those who keep close to their customer base. In a warning to retailers occupying the business theatre at RBTE, he explained that previous market leaders in their fields, Kodak and Nokia, fell by the wayside after not following these rules.

“What happened to Kodak, will happen to a lot of companies and industries in the next five to ten years – and most of them won’t see it coming,” he explained.

Oliver Bonas e-commerce strategist Camilla Tress detailed how her lifestyle retailer’s website re-platforming project, which will see the business transfer from Magento 1 to Magento 2 in the coming months, is defined by a “headless” approach. Such a strategy means front and back-end e-commerce operations are decoupled, which allows, for example, content on the CMS to be distributed on to multiple media platforms, not just the company’s website.

It will also help ensure variety in promotional material, and flexibility in the design and layout of content on websites, newsletter, et al.

“Making things modular and interchangeable is key,” explained Tress, who added that Oliver Bonas is keen to bring as many elements of the store to its website, as well as introducing multiple digital touchpoints to its shop portfolio, thus “bringing the technology both ways”.

Co-op Food’s solutions specialist Barry Morgan was another to underline the need for more agility, during his presentation on how the grocer is working with Manhattan Associates to implement a new warehouse management system (WMS) across its 12 UK distribution centres.

“We’re able to make small changes quickly from a WMS perspective,” he said of the new software supporting Co-op’s warehouse-to-store logistical operations.

So, having identified the key themes retailers and brands were talking about in the conference sessions, were their needs being catered for on the expo floor? The answer was a resounding ‘yes’ – with hundreds upon hundreds of companies showcasing their wares.

Technology toolkit for today’s retailers

Where do you start when analysing the technology that stood out? Hundreds of exhibitors of retail solutions in one place always provides an assault on the senses, but it certainly gave the impression there is plenty of help out there from the vendor community for a retail industry battling particularly strong headwinds right now.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics were two very visible solutions for any retailers navigating their way around the show floor – with Softbank Technologies’ Pepper the Robot and its various software partners, including Dedagroup Stealth, causing a stir. Pepper played a prominent role welcoming visitors and engaging with retailers all around the expo, showcasing how bots can work side by side with humans in modern retail.

But those tech solutions which have a real chance of gaining traction in the industry are surely those which consider multiple points of the consumer shopping journey and solve real-life operational challenges. Like, for example, InovRetail’s range of solutions designed to support in season management for fashion retailers, and which use data science to bridge the gap between planning and execution. On show at RBTE was the company’s software solutions which help organise data that can, for example, be accessed by store staff on wearable devices or in fitting rooms to be put to use in real time.

PCMS, meanwhile, demonstrated its Personalised Offers tool, which is the latest addition to its Vision Commerce Suite. The technology provides retailers with a single view of the customer across multiple channels, enabling them to activate timely and relevant marketing campaigns for consumers based on their shopping habits.

As shoppers continue to become increasingly mobilised, solutions from the likes of YoYo Wallet – which is supporting the mobile loyalty and payment app at Caffe Nero – and Itim – which provides the software for companies such as The Entertainer and The White Company to be flexible with either fixed or mobile point of sale services in stores – showcased relevancy and reliability.

From a fintech and payments perspective, Adyen‘s solution, which enables retailers to deploy a single platform that supports the various methods of transaction that might be required to serve customers from around the world, turned heads at RBTE. In recent weeks the company has announced partnerships with the likes of eBay and Fat Face, and it presented on stage alongside footwear retailer Schuh, where the need for flexibility across all retail systems was emphasised.

As ever, all this technology typically means nothing if retailers do not have the strategy, operational structure or people set up to use it in the appropriate manner. This, as in previous years, was a key theme prevalent across the multiple conference sessions that ran alongside the expo over the course of the two days.

Howard Saunders, retail futurist and founder of the 22nd&5th consultancy, underlined this point. He also called on retailers to ensure any investments in technology do not diminish the humanity required for successful retailing.

Speaking at RBTE, Saunders said: “There are loads of stands here and there are lots of very clever people out there doing amazing stuff, but I tend to feel that there are a lot of retailers out there standing on the pavements of stores, wondering where the customers have gone and think that maybe a sprinkling of technology will save them. It won’t.”

He added: “The rise of AI and robotics will teach us what we want from humanity, which is proper hospitality. One of the trends we never talk about is the rise of proper hospitality – intense hospitality that genuinely feels real and generous, not polite and distant.”

RBTE profile hits new heights

Retail Connections’ parent company Fieldworks was proud to be the official public relations partner for RBTE, and its co-located Retail Design Expo and Retail Digital Signage Expo shows.

Thanks to Fieldworks’ media connections – and the growing influence of the event itself – the BBC was in attendance on day one of the show. Business presenter Ben Thompson reported live from Olympia and interviewed BT’s Alison Wiltshire, GDR Creative Intelligence’s Kate Ancketill and RBTE event director Matt Bradley live on air.

Click here to view the coverage

It helped add to the international event’s already global profile, with the coverage broadcast live on the BBC Breakfast programme, which is watched by millions of people around the world. It was an impactful way to start two days of topical discussions, industry analysis, and displays of exciting new retail services and solutions.

Summing up the event on Twitter, Bradley gave an indication of the positive reaction to the show and the importance so many organisations involved in the fast-moving retail sector attach to the annual event, which has now been running for eight years.

“What an unbelievable couple of days! Thank you to all of you for making #RBTE18 one that we will never forget! @rbtexpo,” he tweeted.

Retail Connections would like to echo those sentiments. See you all at RBTE again, in 2019!

You will find write-ups from individual RBTE and Retail Design Expo sessions on the Retail Connections website throughout May

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