Reverse engineering retail for the post-channel world

The Retail Business Technology Expo held earlier this month at London’s Olympia exhibition centre was as remarkable for what people didn’t talk about, as what they did.

Zebra Technologies’ Mark Thomson hit the nail on the head. “Look around, at the stands — nobody is talking about omnichannel anymore,” he said. “Apart from a couple — and that’s just because they haven’t caught up yet.”

Indeed. The ‘omni’ term did get a mention at the panel session on future-proofing the supply chain I hosted, but just the one. It’s not that omnichannel is less relevant; more that the discussion about channels is evolving, adapting to the perspective of an industry already re-orienting itself.

Online and mobile are no longer new; they just ‘are’. And thinking about them as separate makes as much sense as making coleslaw without mayonnaise. “We’re seeing a shift towards customer centricity and a unified commerce approach, rather than a view that omnichannel is achieved,” explains Mark.

That’s the principle: of course, the reality is a work in progress. It’s still a major issue for a retailer to oversee the customer journey as an individual flits from online investigation, to in-store evaluation, then to mobile purchase (and potentially, physical return), which benefits neither retailer nor customer.

Technologies are far from seamless; it’s challenging to get it all working together, with the result that customers can bear the brunt, for example being asked for the same information over and again.  “The technology needs to get out of the way when the customer wants to buy,” says Ian Benn, Head of Northern Europe at Ingenico.

Part of the response could be tokenisation, originally conceived for customer privacy protection but with a spin-off benefit of acting like a non-intrusive customer ‘cookie’ within the sales process. “Tokenisation lets customers roam from point of sale to m-commerce to e-commerce and back again; often in the same purchase,” Ian continues.

Whatever the technological answer, according to my panellists, the trick is seeing what the whole of retail is about. In this complex, digitally augmented world, retailers can lose touch with the fact they are ultimately curators, managing the relationship between customers and their suppliers, and getting the right products to the right people.

This may sound obvious but it needs to remain front and centre of the retail and logistics strategy, whatever tools are available to achieve it and whatever their ramifications.

The other two key parts of any strategy are to deliver on foundation standards for data format and exchange, and to get the different parts of the business engaged with what such capabilities enable. Essentially, these two pillars provide a technology-up and a business-down response to meet retail’s fundamental goal.

Consumers may have changed how they buy but the market remains wide open for those who can meet their needs, working across whatever ‘channels’ they choose to express them and along the entire route from supplier to warehouse, to home and beyond.