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Top 10 retail tech stories of 2018

Computer Weekly looks at what 2018 had in store for the retail industry – what technologies were retailers rushing to adopt and which brands fell behind?

Technology adoption is nothing new, and retailers spent 2018 introducing innovations such as artificial intelligence (AI) and voice-driven shopping.

To drive forward this change, some retailers focused on hiring new people and developing new skillsets as technology becomes their new focus for the future of shopping.

But some retailers have been slow to adopt such technology, leading to a number of poor quarterly statements as businesses struggle to stay relevant in a world where customer behaviour is changing more quickly than they can cope with.

1. NRF 2018: Companies should take ‘lab approach’ to innovation, says former GE exec

The retail industry is facing a lot of disruption in the wake of technology adoption, including shifting customer behaviour due to easily accessible technology.

Many retailers are working to adopt new tech to make the customer experience better, but a theme at NRF 2018 highlighted the fact that legacy systems can make it difficult to try new things out.

For this reason, it was suggested that retailers take a “lab” approach to experiment with what works and what doesn’t, without setting anything in stone.

Some retailers were using trials to achieve this, while others focused on using tech startups to test and adopt new technology.

2. Online retail grew less than expected in 2017

Although online retail did not grow at the pace it was expected to in 2017, it was clear that online and mobile shopping were the preferred channels for many people.

More than half of millennials preferred getting advice about purchases online as opposed to in store, a quarter of all shopping was happening on mobile devices and retail footfall was still steadily declining.

Online retail may not have grown at the pace expected coming into 2018, but digital shopping is still on the rise, and many believe mobile will be more disruptive to the retail industry than online was.

3. Modern retail: machine learning, customer experience and legacy

Retailers have tried many ways to adapt to shifting customer behaviour and utilise the data they have been collecting for many years, including the use of machine learning technologies to predict customer behaviour, using AI to provide a better customer experience, and tackling legacy IT systems standing in the way of change.

But some are struggling to adopt new technology, with a quarter of retailers saying technology investment makes it even harder to connect with consumers than before.

Regardless of the technology being adopted, experts say digitally-led retail requires an agile approach, allowing projects to fail fast, learn and then adapt.

4. The use cases, challenges and benefits behind retail AI

AI remained one of the dominant buzzwords in the tech industry, with many retailers adopting it to drive services ranging from chatbots to customer loyalty.

There are many pros to adopting AI, including automating mundane tasks and offering a better, and faster, customer service.

But experts warn against rushing into projects, saying retailers should make sure they are well prepared before adopting AI.

5. M&S admits online remit ‘well behind’ competitors

During its half-year results, Marks and Spencer held up its hands and admitted its online offerings were not as good as those of other retailers.

Not every retailer is managing to keep up with the pace of change in the retail industry, and M&S was not the only one to flounder in 2018. John Lewis continued to blame drops in profit on high IT costs and the price of transformation, and BHS called it quits on its newly renovated website just two years after the department store’s closure.

These admissions shine a light on the difficulties the retail industry is facing in the wake of technology disruption.

6. M&S aims to give 1,000 employees data skills

Despite its struggles, M&S announced it would be training 1,000 employees in data skills through a partnership with Decoded – proof that retailers were realising the need for these vital tech skills.

Other retailers were also seeking new skills and an increase in tech professionals to shift the focus towards digital.

Among many others, online food delivery service Just Eat announced it was on the lookout for 150 technology professionals in 2018, while online giant Amazon opened a new Manchester research and development hub, subsequently creating roles for 1,000 skilled workers.

7. Co-op trials pay-in-aisle technology

The Co-op was one of many retailers in 2018 to develop technology enabling customers to pay for goods on their mobile and walk out of a store without visiting a checkout.

This trend, which many argue was prompted by Amazon’s checkout-less Amazon Go stores, shows the importance of convenience to the modern digital customer.

8. Starbucks to advise on development of bitcoin trading platform

In 2018, coffee giant Starbucks became one of a group of firms advising on the development of a digital assets platform.

Although technologies such as cryptocurrencies are still in their infancy, having high-profile retailers assisting in the development of platforms like this hints at the possibility of tech such as this seeping into people’s day-to-day lives in the future.

9. ASOS launches voice shopping on Google Assistant

ASOS spent 2018 experimenting with various technology services, experimenting to improve the customer experience and discover what digital services could play a big part in the future of retail. One of these was voice-driven shopping, allowing people to use speech to browse its products and shop.

ASOS was not alone in this development, with other retailers, such as Argos, developing voice-shopping capabilities – many while suggesting this is how consumers will soon prefer to shop.

10. Retail tech spending will grow 3.6% globally in 2019, predicts Gartner

While the retail industry experiments with new technologies each year, 2018 was bursting with experiments and new ideas for brands. In 2019, Gartner expects spending on tech in the retail sector to grow even more as retailers fight to stay relevant in a digital world.

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