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Top 10 retail IT stories in 2017

Computer Weekly looks back at how emerging technologies began to creep into the retail space in 2017, bringing innovations such as artificial intelligence, voice-powered shopping and social media to the fore

As digital technology becomes more readily available, retailers are experimenting with how it can be incorporated into their online and offline offerings.

In 2017, a variety of technologies have entered the retail environment to make the in-store experience more exciting for increasingly demanding customers.

Alongside this innovation comes the need for new skills for in-store employees to help them keep up with technologically savvy consumers – but it is evident that store staff will still be important in the future despite increasing adoption of technology.

1. Retail tech training – an opportunity to drive employee retention?

The year began with the Nation Retail Federation’s “Big Show”, where a panel of retail experts discussed how increases in bricks-and-mortar technologies is leading to store staff needing more training.

But these technologies, such as self-checkout, store kiosks and the possibility for robotic shop assistants in the future, are not reducing the need for shop assistants – even younger people who are more tech savvy still prefer a traditional checkout experience. 

The NRF panel talked about the increased turnaround of retail staff, and how additional tech training could retain these employees in the future.

2. The technology transforming the retail industry

The retail industry has come a long way with technology experimentation in the past few years, and 2017 was no exception.

In February, Ocado Technology announced that it had been developing a robotic arm for use in grocery picking in its warehouses.

Many believed that this, and other bold moves made by Ocado during the year, could spell trouble for the retailer if it got too far ahead of the curve without getting the basics 100% right.

Where Ocado has put its technology innovation into action, many other retailers have been experimenting with retail technologies such as developing stores as showrooms and ordering goods in-store via selfies.

3. Customer expectation is biggest problem for retail, says panel

Consumer expectation has increasingly become one of the biggest difficulties for retailers, with easily available technology adapting what customers expect from a retail experience.

Shoppers want access to retailers’ applications to help them when shopping in store, they want a consistent experience across all channels and they increasingly expect a prompt and helpful response across social platforms.

A panel at the 2017 Internet Retail Expo (IRX) explained how these demands are putting pressure on retailers to innovate to avoid losing the business of fickle customers.

4. Most younger shoppers want to buy goods directly through social media

To add to retailers’ difficulty in ensuring their services cater to increasing consumer demand, research in 2017 found that many younger shoppers would like to buy goods directly through social media.

They also expressed interest in purchasing goods using voice-ordering services such as the Amazon Alexa, or receiving goods via subscription-based retail services.

But younger shoppers still like a traditional payment experience in stores, and many older shoppers do not want to buy goods using these methods, making it increasingly difficult for brands to cater to all customers.

5. How Game used data to transform store experience and drive personalisation

Retailers have been collecting data about how customers interact with brands in-store and online for many years, but have recently been using this data to provide the more personalised experience that consumers are growing to expect.

At IRX 2017, video game retailer Game’s group insight and marketing director, Fred Prego, described how the firm had used customer data to completely change its in-store and online experience and draw in a more modern audience.

Other brands have also experimented with different channels to drive a better consumer experience, including snack firm Graze, which developed a multichannel approach after entering the market as a pureplay, and Made.com, which has begun trialling real-time chat to allow its staff to advise customers on purchases.

6. Paymentless retail could be the future, says Barclaycard VP of strategy and innovation

Payments play a huge part in the retail process, and can shape how consumers feel about a particular retailer or brand.

A bad experience can put consumers off, and it is at this point of an interaction with a retailer when the consumer has the least patience.

Anita Liu Harvey, vice-president of strategy and innovation at Barclaycard, told the 2017 Retail Business Technology Expo that the perfect future scenario for payments would be for consumers to walk out of stores with goods without having to take part in the physical act of payment.

Consumers are becoming increasingly comfortable with alternative ways to pay, and many are willing to use biometric methods if it means a more seamless experience.

7. Shopping centre giant Intu launches startup incubator programme

In the summer, shopping centre giant Intu became one of the latest brands to work with retail startups to gain insight into how new technologies can enhance the consumer experience.

Many retail brands struggle to introduce new technologies because of legacy systems, and working with smaller startups can help to develop innovative ideas.

Intu follows in the footsteps of retailer John Lewis, which has used its startup accelerator, JLab, to work with retail startups for years, and in 2017 its sister firm Waitrose also took part for the first time.

8. Tesco expands reach for same-day grocery delivery

One of the UK’s biggest supermarket brands, Tesco, announced in 2017 that it would allow customers across the UK to order groceries for delivery on the same day.

Claiming to be the country’s first retailer to offer both a same-day grocery delivery service and a click-and-collect service, Adrian Letts, managing director of Tesco Online, said the service was introduced after a successful trial in London proved its popularity with customers.

Retailers are increasingly developing services like this to compete with larger online retailers such as Amazon.

9. Most consumers think they are more digitally savvy than some retailers

Retailers have spent 2017 trying to develop their digital and technology offerings in a bid to cater for increasingly demanding customers, but consumers still think they are more tech-savvy than the retailers they buy goods from.

Research found nearly 60% of consumers think they are more likely to shop with a retailer that appears to be digitally innovative, and many think they have a more forward-thinking attitude towards technology than many brands.

This attitude proves retailers have a long way to go in making sure they develop a technology-driven experience that meets consumer expectations.

10. Paul Coby to step down as John Lewis CIO

As the year drew to a close, one of the UK’s best-known retail CIOs, John Lewis’s Paul Coby, announced he would be leaving the firm in 2018. Coby has spent almost seven years at the department store chain, advancing its use of technology to keep the retailer’s traditional values while catering to modern customer demands.

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