This article was first published in the Summer 2014 issue of Speak
Karen McCandless speaks to retail visionary Robert Willett about how retailers can get the most out of their technology and why people are still their number one asset
How much does a CEO today get involved in the technology decisions at retailers?
CEOs don’t spend enough time understanding the role of technology, and all too often leave it to CIOs. This is because many come from either a financial or marketing background but, in the future, more will have had careers in the field of technology. My time working at Accenture has helped me considerably to understand what to do and, importantly, what not to do with technology.
How can retailers improve the customer experience with technology?
The balance of power has shifted to consumers, so everything a retailer does must be seen through the eyes of a customer. However, this still isn’t the case for many companies. For example, why do some train operators still not offer wi-fi on trains when this is what their customers want? Retailers must listen and find out what consumers like and don’t like, as well as what they can do to make their lives easier. This insight will enable them to edit on behalf of their customers if they are a trusted brand.
Will we see the demise of bricks and mortar stores over the next few years?
No, while the role of the store will change, people are social animals and enjoy the interaction, so it will change radically but won’t go away. Retailers have to reinvent what the store stands for – it’s not simply a catalogue of their products; it’s more about selling solutions and co-creation. To succeed, stores must provide their sales associate with the insights they need to better serve customers. Knowing a consumer’s purchase history and which channels they have shopped or searched are critical components to understanding their desires. But consumers are demanding, they expect to get a product whenever and wherever they want. Unfortunately this is an area where retailers and carriers alike have under invested significantly.
Do you see a different attitude from traditional store-based retailers and online retailers when it comes to technology?
Online retailers have an advantage – they can find out so much about customers when they shop with them, but bricks and mortar retailers have this black hole. When a customer enters a store they lose sight of them until they make transaction. They don’t know enough about what they are looking for, how much they want to spend, and when and where they need advice. We’re seeing the emergence of technology – such as beacons – that can enable retailers to do this. Bricks and mortar retailers are also using online and mobile channels to bring people in store.
How can retailers ensure that they get the most out of the technology they invest in rather than it never fully being utilised?
It’s not just about implementing new technology, but about how you integrate it into the business. There is no point just implementing a new system and working in the same way as before, as this will not bring about change. Firstly, staff have to be well trained to ensure they know how to use the technology and make the most of it. For example, retailers may implement new systems that collect more data, but do the staff know what to do with it? Can they use the system to obtain insight out of this data that will benefit the business and the consumer experience? New systems are not a silver bullet; retailers also have to change processes and ensure that their employees are fully on board with these new changes. But product is still key; if you have a poor product, service and culture then technology won’t save you. If you don’t have a good product and service then your business won’t survive.
With all this talk of technology, are retailers in danger of forgetting about their most important asset – people?
In this new, digitally-connected world, employees become even more important than ever; they are the secret sauce in retail operations. The whole point of technology is to make employees’ lives simpler, automate the mundane tasks and free them up to spend more time interacting with and listening to customers. CEOs must recognise that people are not a cost centre or they will not succeed.
What do you see as being ‘the next big thing’ in terms of technology in the retail industry?
One significant trend is the ability to purchase locally via the store and the web; more people want food that is sourced in their area. Social media will help consumers understand more about a retailer’s business and products; it will not be an avenue to sell through but more about confirmation and advice. Think about it this way: retailers put stores in areas where there is most traffic, well there is massive traffic on social media networks. We will also see more after-sales advice and service, where good retailers will help customers get the most value from the product that they have just purchased.
How important is this innovation to the industry in general?
The difference between a very successful retailer and an average one is around thinking about the future, being inquisitive and always looking for new ideas. Innovation is also key. The UK, for example, has always developed innovative products and services but these have often been optimised elsewhere. Take the ejector seats in planes or the Harrier Jump Jet, which were developed in the UK but optimised elsewhere. Governments need to be much more supportive of and invest more in innovation and technology, while supporting young entrepreneurs and raising the technology agenda through the school curriculum. Teachers aren’t business leaders so they need to be supported by industry to ensure we train the business leaders of tomorrow and enable continued innovation. As a trustee of the National Museum of Computing in the UK – which is based in Bletchley, the home of the first computer, Colossus, operational in 1944 and still functioning today – this is something close to my heart. The aim of this charity is to collect and restore computer systems and to enable people to explore the collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. We need to ensure technology is the servant of man, not the other way round.
Robert Willett is currently chairman of Metapack, Eagle Eye Solutions and Occa-Home and director of Mobile World Vietnam, as well as former CEO of Best Buy International. He was also chairman of BestBuy Europe (retired), the joint venture between Bestbuy and Carphone Warehouse, and founder of Bestbuy Mobile in the US
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