Why consumer habits are changing retail IT strategies

Graham Benson, CIO of online clothing business M&M direct, discusses the reason why consumer habits must change retail IT strategies.

When I started in e-commerce nearly 15 years ago, there was a clear demographic split between online shoppers and “traditional” shoppers, driven as much by socio-economic factors as being “tech-savvy”.  Due to the almost ubiquitous nature of technology across every aspect of life, this channel divide has consistently narrowed to a point where, in my opinion, it no longer exists. The concept of multi-channel is effectively dead. 

Instead, consumers now shop in an omni-channel way, with no concept of online and offline channels. They use a mixture of the different ways to interact with a retailer to suit themselves at any given point, combining physical browsing in a store while virtual browsing other retailers' stores to compare prices.

Embracing social media

The customer is now an essential part of a retailer's marketing strategy, as no matter what you do with your above or below-the-line advertising, if your products or service are poor, the digerati instantly take to their preferred social media outlets to share their views with the world. It is a sobering thought that Twitter and Facebook and can now make or destroy your reputation in a disturbingly small amount of time.

The arguments around the cost-effectiveness and monetisation of an enterprise’s social media strategy are irrelevant. The question is, can you afford not to embrace these ways of interacting with your consumers? Investment in social media is just as much a prerequisite for retailers as a call centre is to a mail-order business and a website is to an e-commerce business.

As the line between marketing and IT blurred with the advent of e-commerce – with marketing departments becoming more tech-savvy – the growth of commercialised social media could mean technologists become more influential in running digital media strategies, due to the highly technical and security-risk nature of the activity.

Blurring business boundaries

If we as IT departments are to be successful in this brave new world, in some areas we will need to change beyond current recognition. We will need to unlearn many of the habits we have spent a whole career perfecting. 

For example, the concept of standardisation of hardware/software will be an anachronism. People will use whatever they want in order to be effective within their jobs, with the popularity of bring your own device (BYOD) schemes potentially reducing IT budgets. But how will we match this nascent anarchy with a need to protect our organisations from the cyber-criminal? I don’t have a fully formed opinion on the answers yet, but would be grateful to hear from anyone who has.

In terms of modus operandi, we will need to consult with our commercial colleagues, not dictate. IT and marketing teams could well merge as the boundaries blur past a point where it makes sense to try to maintain them at all. If we do retain an individual identity, it will not be around the "T" in IT; it will be around the "I". 


Graham Benson (pictured) is CIO of online clothing business M&M Direct. He has also worked as CIO at Screwfix.com, eBuyer.com and Play.com.

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