Top 10 retail IT stories of 2014

It’s been a busy year for retail as the industry proves it is leading the way in the adoption of technology innovations

It’s been a busy year for retail as the industry proves it is leading the way in the adoption of technology innovations.

Multi-channel – or omni-channel – has been the buzzword, with retailers trying technologies out left, right and centre to not be left behind in the digital world.

From beacons and Wi-Fi tracking to mobile optimisation, some retailers are storming ahead in the digital race, but will it make them more successful if they can't understand their data analytics?

1. Are retailers lost in a sea of technology, data and insight?

Towards the beginning of the year Computer Weekly asked whether retailers are actually using data analytics to their advantage? Research from eCommera showed only 23% of UK retailers feel they can quickly make sense of the data available to them to take the right business decisions. Meanwhile, nearly 50% of retailers believe their current business intelligence tools fall short of their needs, with only 16% confident that their data analytics tools provide the organisational visibility they require.

Nearly six months later at Oracle OpenWorld, it seemed retailers had not really progressed when it comes to gaining insights from data analytics. 

Retailers face a crisis in the modern world. With the rise of online and mobile, consumers are less loyal to brands, and more likely to shop around for the best deal. Retailers must make sure their customer experience is the best, while trying to understand what the customer needs before the customer realises themselves.

But with data coming from a variety of different sources including in-store, loyalty cards, mobile apps or online, retailers are finding their data in silos with no integration, making it difficult to build a comprehensive insight into consumers' habits.

2. Why are retailers turning to startups for innovation?

As part of an omni-channel offering, retailers are looking at innovative technologies to bring into their stores, as well as for their online and mobile channels. And one way to find innovative technologies is to look towards the startup community.

Many retailers are turning to startups over traditional IT players to build these technology systems. John Lewis is one retailer that has, for some time, been open to working with smaller companies through its JLab incubator.

And it is not the only retail incubator – recently, retail has been a key theme among the scores of incubators and accelerators that have emerged from London’s Tech City. Asos has teamed up with Microsoft’s Ventures startup programme, and even the fast-moving consumer goods brand Unilever has developed a platform, The Unilever Foundry, to find innovative startups.

3. Clarks shoes steps into digital

Shoe manufacturer Clarks has been selling shoes for 187 years, but is moving with the times to implement a host of digital technologies for the supply chain and its stores. Computer Weekly spoke with David Grant, director strategy and infrastructure in September to learn about the company's 2025 vision – the key word being cloud.

As well as making technology investments and replacing its legacy e-commerce site with a global cloud-based system, the retailer has invested in digital in the store. At its Exeter branch, the shop and staff have been kitted out with iPads and Wi-Fi to showcase the power of cloud in-store.

According to Grant, when he stood up in front of the Clarks board of directors and said he was going to deliver it in three months’ time, everyone was shocked. “But we did,” he said.

“Cloud meant that, rather than spending three to six months fiddling about in datacentres and trying to install servers and get them working, we could use Microsoft Azure to provide that capability.”

4. House of Fraser’s journey to multi-channel innovation

After a challenging retail period, House of Fraser launched its first website in 2007 and was behind the curve in digital maturity. But the department store brand is now staking its claim as an elite multi-channel retailer by providing technology offerings in the form of mobile in stores and even buy-and-collect innovations, including a partnership with coffee shop Café Nero.

The retailer also redeveloped its website for mobile and touchscreen in 2014 – before it renovated online, as it was seeing a substantial increase in traffic from mobile. It also began kitting staff with mobile devices and created a buy-and-collect check-in area and kiosks for ordering in-store.

“It’s a fundamental success because of staff engagement,” said executive director of multi-channel at House of Fraser Andy Harding. Retailers really need staff to be on board with technology advancements, he added.

5. CIO interview: Jon Rudoe, digital & technology director, Sainsbury’s

Computer Weekly interviewed Rudoe towards the end of 2014, soon after he was named as one of our Rising Stars of the year.

Jon Rudoe heads IT as the digital and technology director at Sainsbury’s. He believes bringing together the twin responsibilities of digital and technology – a vanguard move in an industry where many companies' structures still separate the two – creates exciting propositions for Sainsbury’s customers.

One of these technology innovations is Sainsbury’s mobile shopping application, currently under trial. The app allows customers to create shopping lists which can be used to navigate the shop and scan goods as they are placed in the basket. It also enables the device to pay for goods, allowing the user to avoid checkout queues.

Rudoe explained that, once the shopping list is created, you can take your smartphone into a store and shop from the list on the app, which ticks off items as you scan them into your basket.

“Something like 60% of our customers create a shopping list before they go to the supermarket,” he says. “So we’re not working on the periphery of our business – we’re digitising the heart of the journey.”

6. Interview: Alex Alexander, multi-channel technology director at Asda

Asda has been on a cloud-based e-commerce journey over the past six years after taking its general merchandising and George clothing websites to the cloud, allowing the retailer to concentrate on innovating its retail offering.

One of the services Asda implemented in 2014 was click and collect, as well as next-day delivery, which Alexander says is among the most innovative in the market.

He pointed out that UK retailers are storming ahead in the provision of click-and-collect services for customers compared with their US counterparts.

“In the UK, there are some things we’re the market leader at, including click and collect and same-day/next-day delivery,” said Alexander. “The US doesn’t have the same propositions due to its geography, but it is expected in the UK.”

Alexander said Asda, which is a subsidiary of US retailer Walmart, works with the US giant to share technology innovation and ideas. Walmart is currently looking into how it can leverage Asda’s click-and-collect strategy, he said.

7. CIO interview: “Stores still very much part of Argos IT strategy”

At a time when online retailing is threatening bricks-and-mortar shops, 1970s-founded brand Argos has built up an impressive geographical footprint. Most people in Britain live within 10 miles of an Argos store, 70% of the UK population shop there at least once a year, and it is one of the biggest retailers on the high street with over 700 physical stores.

 IT director Mike Sackman told Computer Weekly that Argos still sees its stores as a huge advantage.

A big part of Argos’s recent strategy has been to position itself as a digital leader, by becoming omni-channel, recruiting talent for a digital innovation hub and opening a number of digital concept stores.

The retailer launched the digital concept stores with iPads. These will replace the traditional Argos catalogues by allowing customers to swipe and select products using the tablet devices. But there is no decision on which devices may be used on roll-out, so Argos’s own-branded tablet could be a contender.

8. Photostory: Retail technology – what’s hot?

This photostory shows the hottest technology being used by retailers today. From intelligent security systems to the downright whacky – think augmented reality Chirstmas penguins. Retailers have an awful lot to choose from when spending their money on IT and tech.

9. Camden Market launches social Wi-Fi system to track footfall

London’s Camden Market has invested in free Wi-Fi connectivity for its visitors which also provides the market with real-time location data

Users can access the free Wi-Fi service 24 hours a day, which in return provides the business with user data from the network. is able to see the location of users, with real-time movements and additional information such as gender, if provided by shoppers.

The data analytics will allow the business to understand the popular areas in London’s famous market, and encourage shoppers to visit areas they might not have found.

If users provide more information about themselves, the technology could – in the future – allow to advertise through personalised display ads as a shopper walks by.

10. Mothercare uses mobile to engage with customers, not just to sell

Mothercare is using mobile technology to improve customer service and engage with users.

The pregnancy and baby equipment retailer is centreing its customer engagement through all of its channels, but especially through its mobile applications.

Mothercare mobile commerce manager Harpinder Singh said retailers should be putting customers at the heart of what they do, rather than just trying to sell products.

“We need to compete with the likes of Amazon, and if we just go with price we will end up slashing margins and going out of business,” he told delegates. “Mobile has given us a real opportunity to be more competitive.”

The retailer now has mobile sites for both Mothercare and the Early Learning Centre, and Singh pointed they don’t just sell the product. They have a “whole bunch of engaging content” and are also used in-store as specialist tools, he said.

The Mothercare app allows users to personalise it with photos of their children and features advice and video content, such as how to change a nappy and baby songs.

Read more on IT for retail and logistics