Shift Happens? (in the retail industry)

By Barbara Walman.
The Shift Happens video of 2006 and the hundreds of subsequent versions of it, came to mind when I recently attended the Retail Week Conference 2011. Has the UK retail industry moved on at the same cracking pace evident in the global technology and media industries?  Specifically, given my past involvement in the retail technology area, how did RWC 2011 differ from EPoS '80 and '81?
No change here
Both events certainly were historic occasions.  Step back to June 1980 (a distant memory if at all - for many of you) at the Rainbow Suite in Kensington and the industry was invited to 'attend a unique event the first European congress to offer retail management a comprehensive survey and assessment of current retail data capture techniques and point of sale systems developments.'  EpoS '80 comprised three elements: an exhibition of 20 or so suppliers only a handful still left in the business, a one day seminar during which the late Dr Gil Jones and I gave a research based overview on the available EPoS systems and the benefits they could bring to the attending retail managers and the third part which was most like the RWC 2011 a two-day conference featuring speakers from key European retailers.  The RWC conference had an incredible line up of presenters and a record number of delegates. Sadly, I do not have a list of the EPOS '80 speakers, but the following year at Epos '81 a line-up of speakers and the topics covered are eerily relevant today!  
The 1981 event kicked off with a conference session entitled 'The Climate for Investment' with a keynote address by The Right Hon. Roy Hattersley, MP.  Reading the introduction and outline of the industry specialist presentations, it seems that some very similar points were being addressed by the RWC speakers thirty years on.
The EpoS events were launched amidst great excitement in the industry, they were the first retail technology events in Europe and there were predictions of the cashless society, electronic transfer of funds, real time stock updates, developments in data communications, electronic surveillance to reduce shrinkage, specialist retail systems and scanning developments in the retail food area.  Fast forward to March 2011 and whilst some of these topics are still being discussed, the key issues seem to be meeting the needs of customers and multi-channel retailing.
I was particularly impressed by the openness of some of the presenters.  For example Mark Price, Managing Director of Waitrose gave an overview of how they were working with all their stakeholders 'treading lightly' as a corporate social responsibility policy.  The CSR policy could sometimes be difficult to maintain when expanding into politically sensitive areas such as the Middle East but Mark Price re-assured delegates that they had to balance business interests with the soul of CSR. 
Another candid speaker Steve Lewis, CEO of Majestic Wines, who revealed in a group discussion, chaired brilliantly by the BBC presenter Declan Curry that his company only employed personable attractive graduates who would flirt with its middle class customers. The company also sends these graduates off to vineyards around the world to gen up on their knowledge of wines.  I know where I'm going to be buying wine from in future!  By contrast Hugh Harvey, MD of Comet revealed that his company sends his staff overseas to improve their product knowledge, but in this case to washing machine factories in Poland!  Also on this panel of distinguished retailers was Joseph Wan, CEO of Harvey Nichols who certainly embraces the session title of 'Differentiating through Excellent customer Service'.  Joseph Wan spoke of the customer journey in his stores and how product knowledge is paramount and like his colleagues on the platform, the company provides regular training on the products and customer trends.
The importance of mapping customer trends and predicting future trends was evident in several other presentations, as well as in the accompanying mini exhibition at RWC.  Companies such as Empathica's customer insight programme to obtain customer feedback, WGSN's monitoring of current and future trends used by a plethora of international retailers, Planet Retail's global insights (very similar to the research that RMDP used to conduct, but on a much larger and sophisticated scale) and Experian competitive insights into the demographics, lifestyles and behaviour of UK households.
Several speakers looked to the future of retailing.  Brian Kalms of Accenture felt that some had been predictable yes we were talking about self-scanning 30 years ago, but other developments were not so predictable.  This is why the Shift Happens video is regularly updated the pace of change and the unpredictability of some global events dictate this.  We did not foresee the importance of the internet for browsing, price comparisons, and the growth of E-Bay, the development of the economies of china and of India, the impact of Social Media, Apps on I-Phones and the expansion of food retailers into non-food.
So what of the future?  After listening and watching Peter Fitzgerald, Director Retail, Technology and Business Markets, you would have been forgiven for thinking that the only way forward was using Apps on smart phones.  He revealed that 10-15% of Google searches are via mobiles, Tesco's mobile apps have had incredible growth and although the retail experience is not dead, the uses of apps as part of multi-channel retailing will inevitable change the retail model.  Martha Lane fox, Co-founder of Last and now UK government digital champion concluded that customers and businesses are effectively disenfranchised, if they are not online.  There are still 9.2 million people not online (partially age, partly income deprivation) and that has to change.  Face book is massively important as well with over 500million users this form of social commerce is a massive platform for word of mouth.  The key message is that some trends move faster than predicted, some slower and some never get going.
Yes in some areas Shift has Happened since 1980 in others not.  But it's fun following the trends and retailing in a vast array of models and channels will be around for at least another thirty years. 

About the author: Barbara Walman is a Retail Education Specialist and former Research Director, RMDP and Editor, Retail Automation.

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