What if … Who will give retailers permission to change?

Everyone is saying that retailing needs to change and I think that there cannot be a retailer left in the UK that does not get it. However, probably less than 20% are really making the big changes that will prepare them for what has already arrived – digital and fickle consumers, and a proliferation of channels that has made most digital transformation strategies ineffective.

And while some of the largest retailers think they are changing, it is clear to the rest of us that it is not going to work. You name the names. And lastly, some just don’t get it, overwhelmed perhaps by nostalgia for happier times that they pray will come again, or fear that if they make changes, they will break the business.

The majority are at least changing, no question, but while I am happy to see so much great tech being adopted in retail today, I am still worried that many of the fundamentals – structural, cultural and political – are not being addressed. Tech, as always, is an enabler, so it may just be doing a good job driving a business that is moribund.

I pray for different things, things that may never change but which I feel need to. And urgently.

Here are six things retailers can do around tech:
  1. Change the IT roadmap. Most IT roadmaps are not roadmaps but long lists of IT queuing to get implemented. Not a problem in the old days when the retail business that signed the original tech contract was the same one at the end of the implementation. That is no longer true, but who will take a cold, hard look at the list and decide what needs to move up, be struck off, and what is missing.
  2. Force departments that have the same focus to use x-departmental planning tools. The level of departmental specialisation in IT tools has got to the point where the retailer has ended up with best of breed but not best of business. This is not a call to end specialisation, but simply to the way that data is reported across the business. What happens now is that beautiful plans get visited on other departments that cannot implement them. A perfect example of this is when Buying does a great deal on Coke, with no clue as to how Coke will perform once it hits the store, driving the poor store manager mad.
  3. Use AI. Call me naïve, but why are retailers not making greater use of AI? No one is asking them to bet the business, because they can do proofs of concept or parallel universes that use real but not live data, and then A/B test against business as usual. I accept that there is a credibility gap, meaning retailers simply do not believe the claims that many vendors make in terms of higher availability, lower waste and fewer returns, but why not find out?
  4. Tear up Excel. You’ve all heard this before, so it is worth understanding why people do not want to let go of their spreadsheets. It is an ownership issue; people feel invested in the data that sits in a spreadsheet, particularly if they built it themselves, so they feel that it is the only accurate version of the truth. The level of automation in many of the newer planning tool dashboards is alienating to many users, so they want to make the move. So I get it. But, really, it is time to ditch Excel.
  5. Don’t upgrade in store tech, change it. Some retailers make their senior staff work in store for a day; how about making them do this for a month, and they quickly see that most traditional in store hardware is a constraint on trade not an enabler of it. This is less about magic mirrors, digital signage and Augmented Reality, and more about mobile tech, integrated payment/loyalty/charity systems, staff apps and broader networks.
  6. Be innovative with tech. Many retailers talk publicly about how they are innovating when they are in fact doing anything but. It takes senior management to break things and work to find a better way. What shareholder will agree to let any retailer slow down for long enough to make fundamental changes that are almost certainly going to be an interruption to trade? Some retailers can and do build disruptive teams inside the business and then unleash them at the right time, but there is currently a lot of playing about at the margins. Starting a labs business is usually nothing more than lip service, when the whole face needs a makeover.

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