Why Not Abandon All Retail Technology Innovation?

As a technologist, you’d probably expect me to embrace the advance of technology into every part of my life: at home, at work and while I’m out and about. The truth is, like most, I suspect, I walk a line in the hope of striking a suitable balance. In other words, I make a choice; wholeheartedly adopting some technological innovations that clearly offer me some benefit, while trying and then dismissing others that don’t. So, does this technology-fickle lifestyle of mine suggest that we should innovate less and spend our time on other things instead?

Most technology innovation passes us by; it takes place at what you might call the ‘nuts and bolts’ level: new communication protocol enhancements, more efficient micro-processor design etc. When the big stuff lands, we all tend to notice, and with retail being such a big part of our lives, it usually results in one of three outcomes:

  1. We try it, love it and become the ambassador for the technology and those that introduced it;
  2. We try it, hate it and dissuade others from using it;
  3. We never even try it.

From my own experience of working in the Tesco Technology team for over 7 years, I know that the adoption rate forWhy Not Abandon All Retail Technology Innovation? new retail innovations varies quite considerably. If I was to pick a few customer-facing examples of retail innovations from least to most popular, we might have something like this:

  • Scan as you shop;
  • Click & Collect (one of my personal favourites);
  • Self-service checkouts;
  • In-store customer Wi-Fi;
  • Barcode labelling of products (an old one that has been adopted globally).

It’s worth noting that the first three in the above list are all variations of the shopping trip and were created to eliminate the queue at the checkout. Each offers something slightly different to the consumer, and consumers like choice.

Excitingly, a new form of customer-facing technology has sprung-up recently, with a big focus on retail: in-home shopping assistants. Whether it’s the Amazon Echo, the very similar Google Home or the rather smart looking Samsung Family Hub fridge freezer, technology is making shopping easier than ever, while at the same time solving other problems we didn’t know we had (for example, the Samsung fridge has cameras inside so you can see your food while away from home). These advances have suffered some criticism, however, as they push the boundaries on how far, technology intrudes into our private lives.

Not all retail innovation is customer-facing, however; some are strictly ‘employees only’. Queues at the punch-in clock are shorter now with the arrival of mobile clocking, stock control is quicker and more convenient with mobile stock control devices and the relaxation of rules around using one’s own smartphone at work (aka Bring Your Own Device – BYOD) is enabling employees to be even more connected to the organisation they work for and those they work with. BYOD unlocks new levels of employee engagement and collaboration, and I’m already hearing about additional benefits like reduced staff turnover and more efficient teams. Not all ‘behind the scenes’ innovation in retail is successful, however, and I can think of a few projects I worked on at Tesco that didn’t deliver the level of user engagement hoped for! Either the technology wasn’t right, or the price point was too high.

So, to my earlier question, if not all innovations are entirely successful, do we really need to bother? Well, despite my pragmatic view on technology, I think the answer has to be ‘yes’. Just like anything new, we don’t always get it right first time. Failure of an innovation can happen for a number of reasons. Fortunately, there are steps we can all take to improve our chances of delivering successful technology innovations into retail.

There are many well-trodden paths for retail technology innovation, but there are still many more not yet explored. For the consumer, shopping is both functional and experiential; the former is satisfied almost entirely by convenience (which is not as simple as it sounds), but the latter is much broader and is influenced by a multitude of factors typically covered by the term ‘the theatre of retail’. In my opinion, the theatre is the real ‘playground’, and it will require bold innovators and brave retailers to tap into the opportunities that lie there.