Information technology may rescue retailers who are having to face up to the first serious economic slowdown in nearly 20 years. But with the looming recession affecting retailers in different ways, each sector is using IT differently.
It was clear at last week's Retail Solutions conference that most bigger and branded retailers have their operational basic IT infrastructure in place. Now they are looking to IT to underpin innovations that could give them an advantage, even if only briefly, in what is fast becoming a hyper-competitive space.
High end fashion retailers such as Harvey Nichols aim to use IT to get closer to their customers and to understand better what motivates their buying behaviour.
Grocery retailers such as Tesco want to use IT to help them cut sky-rocketing fuel bills and other energy costs.
Mass merchandisers such as Argos are looking to optimize their supply chains to make sure that the right goods are on the shelf when the customer calls.
Mike Yowerth, Tesco's group technology and architecture director, says along with other parts of the business IT is under pressure to contribute to the halving of Tesco's carbon footprint. At best it could save perhaps 1% through virtualisation and switching off kit at night.
He estimates IT is responsible for about 4% of the group's carbon footprint. But the real contribution IT could make, he says, is to enable the other 96% of the business.
He is working on a scheme to automate building management and climate control across all Tesco stores. And he is deploying satellite telemetry to monitor the behaviour of drivers in delivery vehicles. The technology allows Tesco to reschedule routes to avoid traffic jams and delivery hold-ups. That is already paying dividends in fuel savings.
"Even if the IT footprint grew to 10% but the group's overall carbon footprint dropped 70%, I would count that a success," he says.
Getting to know customers' preferences in greater depth is increasingly important for all retailers. Martin Schofield, IT and logistics director at Harvey Nichols, says he plans to capture more customer detail at the point of sale and collate it with the customer's purchase history. Stores will use the information to target the customer through advertising at the point of sale and in marketing promotions shots. Harvey Nichols will monitor which promotions the customer responds to, and so refine its offers.