Retail needs CEOs who will lead on tech

Only a few years ago, CIOs were congratulating themselves because most of the analyst houses were saying that senior tech people were finally getting onto the main board. This hasn’t really happened to the extent everyone expected, but even where it has happened, it is clear that tech is still not getting enough board air time. Thanks to CIO and writer, Mark Chillingworth who wrote recently about this for IDG, that’s at least two of us that believe the CEO needs to champion tech and stop spending so much time worrying about the share price.

Retail is a data business

I’d go further. Where are the new generation of CEOs who not only recognise that retailers are becoming data businesses but that some are almost becoming tech businesses? Naming one name: Peter Pritchard CEO of Pets at Home. Here is a guy who is prepared to get behind their shift from putting the customer at the heart of the business to putting the pet at the centre, and using good data to determine what line extensions and new services need to be added to increase sales and life time value (LTV).

Naively perhaps, but I don’t see what the problem is. Tech is possibly the only competitive differentiator left to retailers, and for some their only survival option. Unless all retailers get better at all their processes, they are not going to be able to recover falling margins or cut their operational costs. Specifically, this is about integration; there is already lots of good tech operating within departments but who will integrate everything so that all staff in all channels have a single view of stock, order and customer?

Communicating the importance of tech

Step forward the CTO or CIO, but how do they communicate this to a CEO for whom tech is simply a meeting agenda item? It would be big-headed of me to say I knew the answer, but here are some clues.

Part of the appeal of tech to people who have little or no interest in it, is in what it enables. What can a business look like once tech is doing a good job? Back to Pets at Home, it is tech that is driving the growth of the business, because someone realised that the opportunity lies in the data. Everything else is merely detail – how to develop, deploy, integrate, secure, manage and so on. The CEO can easily sign off on that. But their real strength I feel lies in their ability and willingness to bang some heads together to ensure that people who are busy working in silos and defending their little empires, actually work together.

Time to respect data

The oil that drives tech is data, so while your average CEO may have a superficial interest in tech, they need to get a lot more interested in data. Data is no respecter of departments, politics or other boundaries to getting stuff done, and in that respect needs to be recognised for the valuable commodity it is. What is odd though is, if we all agree that knowledge is power, why isn’t the CEO assuming power through data. If the data gives a better picture of the business than any single director, then it is perhaps time to give it more precedence.

Risk of complacency is real

Let me leave you with a paragraph from Mark’s piece for IDG. “Board level discussions cannot just focus on the technology in use by an organisation, but must be a wide-ranging exploration for what technology can and most likely will do to an organisation. The last two decades has demonstrated that if organisations don’t see a different way of doing things then someone else will.  And again, the last two decades demonstrate that those that see different ways of doing things are in all likelihood, not in your market today.”

In short, those retailers who really understand what tech can do, are right now planning to put you out of business. Did I go too far? Just check out the last three major retailers that went bust and you will see that I am right.

At Fieldworks Marketing we understand the challenges of retail and advocate technology as an enabler. We specialise in helping retail tech brands build visibility and reach prospects with our award winning digital marketing and PR.

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