Back to the future

By Peter Lumsden, Retail Technology Review.
Set amongst the smoulderings of what was to become the greatest financial crisis in living memory, the Excel Centre in Docklands in 2008 saw the demise of Retail Solutions - an exhibition past its sell buy date in an industry seemingly lacking in focus. It was the end of 24 years of a show that helped promote and drive the implementation of IT within the retail sector.

The Retail Business Technology Expo has taken us back to the future. Hosted at Earls Court in the middle of March, the event provided a technology shop window for an industry more focussed than before and driven, for once, by the real end user you and I, the consumer.

Rarely, if ever, has the retail industry had to adapt and change with the times as it does now. Multi-channel is de-rigueur of course, and the huge increase in the growth of internet retailing and sophistication of apps available for our smartphones and iPads (the DigiPoS cloud-based Mobile Shopper app stands out from the crowd) means that the industry is rushing to keep up with the demands of the once humble shopper.  This is born out in the IT spend in the budgets of the major retailers where spend in areas impacting on multichannel are increasing although at the cost of investment in other areas of IT infrastructure. IT spend as a percentage of sales is still pretty static as was pointed out by Brian Hume, CEO of Martec International  in his well-attended presentation on day one of the show. He believes that both 2011 and 2012 will see the need for a lot of budget juggling to keep pace with the growth of Mcommerce and Mobile Retailing unless there are clear increases in sales to justify extra spend.

Close to slipping back into recession or in a steady but painfully slow recovery you can take your pick; the facts are that trading is still difficult for retailers and competition frenzied.  Investment MUST drive productivity and show a clear and fast return on investment and above all, deliver value. It was a theme running throughout the show.

Cloud computing, the other great IT panacea was of course all the rage at the event.  Whilst a vendor driven "you need this, you really do" solution, cloud computing has huge currency right now.  Tony Bryant, Head of Business Development at K3 spoke for many exhibitors when he observed, "With limited CAPEX, many retail organisations are looking at options around funding, hosted (cloud) solutions which can support their growth plans".

Interestingly, a recent Microsoft study of 3,000 businesses in the United States showed that nearly half of the retailers who took part already have used or were used cloud computing  and one third of them were actively seeking to move all of their applications into the cloud.

Cybertill's RetailStoreOne offering is an EPoS solution which picks up perfectly on the value driven theme.  Totally cloud-based, it provides services on-demand via a secure broadband connection.  Reflecting one of the key features of cloud computing, it allows for the peaks and troughs of the yearly sales cycle. Why invest in capacity that you only might need for the months running up to Christmas, for example, or the January sales?  Upgrades, backups and security are taken care of leaving the retailer to manage their business rather than their IT systems. RetailStoreOne also provides an integrated E-commerce and mail order application with real-time stock availability.

 Also shown and fully compliant with their RetailStoreOne software is Cybertill's WebPOS integrated EPoS/payment solution. The Ingenico touch screen till with its small footprint seems an ideal fit for the speciality and non food retail operation. Again cloud-based, it allows retailers to access the software reporting tools anywhere via a simple internet connection.  Functionality is high with a range of features which provide solutions for orders and deliveries and stock management.
The rise and rise of multi-channel and solutions to enable integrated retailing have enabled tier 2 retailers to compete with their larger cousins on much more of a level playing field than ever before. Maginus demonstrated solutions that encompassed all of the facets of multi-channel retail including web, mobile, store and kiosk.  It's a solution perfectly pitched for today's consumer, as Russell Dorset, Sales & Marketing Director at Maginus, confirmed, "Many visitors were looking for technology to improve the multi-channel offering so they can continue to improve the customer journey."

The stability of Microsoft's Dynamics AX for retail as an operating platform, along with its scalability and ability to handle all aspects of the retail business makes it an ideal base to which the Maginus    eCommerce solution can integrate although it can equally stand alone. The organisation also offers a complete web design and build program including graphic design along with a suite of online marketing tools and search engine optimisation techniques.
Maginus have recently launched their cloud services package enabling retailers such as French Connection to benefit from the pay on demand services which has proved highly beneficial at peak sales periods.

A Microsoft Gold Certified Partner, K3 Retail used The Retail Business Technology Expo to launch its K3Retail for AX package.  Citing the clear necessity for an open and stable platform, K3 leverages AX to provide multi-channel functionality throughout the retail operation. From a consumer's point of view, it means a connected shopping experience.  Whether online, mobile, or the combination of click and collect, the system ensures the greatest possible availability of products. Value and profits to the retailer are maximised through the optimisation of inventory levels and, the reduction of over-stocking.

Demonstrating the trend for continued spend in difficult times by retailers for multi-channel based solutions, K3 were able to announce that leading Irish pharmacy chain Sam McCauley Chemists has become the latest in an impressive line of retailers to select the organisation to deliver a multichannel strategy and maximise sales opportunities.

Multi-channel retailing is evolving at speed. Customers are communicating with retailers through the internet, email, smartphones, social media and of course, the phone. Vodat International, a specialist supplier of communications solutions to the retail industry highlighted the problems that can arise if the infrastructure between these different communications tools is not unified. The benefits of the multi-channel solutions driving the business will be lost and the end-to-end customer experience that they were designed for, found sadly lacking.

Vodat's One-Retail package ensures that a customer happily shopping through one channel isn't lost through poor handling in another.  For example, a store may not answer a phone call and the potential sale could be lost or leave the problem unsolved and the customer disgruntled. This system will not only re-route to an appropriate point of service but then allows the operator who does answer to enter an action  into the retailers CRM package and create an alert for the store originally contacted. Also web-based, it ensures that the email, web-chat, call button generated enquiries are routed accordingly by the contact centre all via the most cost effect routing.

Of course, PCI certification is mandatory for any type of organisation processing credit card transactions and Vodat also used The Retail Business Technology Expo to launch their PCI-DSS compliant, thin-client based unified payment solution - ideally using Vodat's secure private network infrastructure through which the transactions take place. Traditionally, this was a high cost area for a retailer switching banks or acquirer. However, Vodat are offering a rental based agreement with little capital expenditure, subject to a three-year contract with a fee based cost structure.  

The solution also removes the responsibility for the secure collection of data, the monitoring and reporting of data usage and required audits from the retailer and, along with that, the possibility of rightly draconian fines for PCI-DSS non-compliance or adherence.

SecureTrading  is one of the UK's leading independent payment service providers. Cash Generator, a UK based sell and loan discount retailer, has selected Secure Trading's Payment Pages to  provide an online payments solution to its franchise network allowing them to sell online. Cash Generator believes that 20% of its turnover will be online this year and the site already sees 6,000 daily visitors.

The Payment Pages product has a number of options. All of these are hosted on SecureTrading's own secure servers but they provide the ability for the retailer to choose the level of transparency of the solution in so far as it is viewed by the consumer For example, a completely transparent solution whereby the transactions clearly are routed via a SecureTrading URL can be chosen, through to a solution which is displayed within an iframe on the customers website with the consumer never leaving the customer URL at any stage of the transaction process. There is also Payment Pages +, perfect for those who want the benefit of Payment Pages, but also want to ensure that their URL is the one seen by the customer throughout the entire process. Whatever approach is taken, all leave the PCI DSS compliancy process with SecureTrading with the customer having to simply complete a self-assessment questionnaire to complete their part of the PCI DSS process.

Legend exhibitions should take great credit for having the courage to launch The Retail Business Technology Expo. 4,200 visitors attended the show over the two days and the organisers were clearly thrilled with the feedback from both exhibitors and attendees alike. Already looking forward to next year's event, Nick Field, Event Director, said, "Our visitor list is a who's who of the UK's top retailers.  We also had an impressive overseas attendance of several hundred retailers from right around the world, with visitors from Ireland, France, Holland, Germany and the USA.  The 2012 event will be held in London on 14 & 15 March and it is set to grow significantly".  

The Retail Business Technology Expo was well thought out and very well marketed. Technology never stands still whatever the state of the economy, and the necessity for retailers to be more customer focussed than ever before has concentrated minds across the retail industry. IT in retail is interesting again. Long may it continue.

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