RBTE 2017: Conference round-up

More than 17,000 visitors flocked to one of Europe’s leading retail sector events, Retail Business Technology Expo (RBTE), at London Olympia earlier this month. The two-day annual event on 8-9 May was the biggest to date, with more than 370 suppliers on show along with a stellar line-up of retailers and industry experts speaking in over 60 sessions across three streams. The Retail Systems team was on hand to cover the whole conference, with Anthony Strzalek reporting from day one and Chris Lemmon from day two.

Day one

Opening the conference on day one was Costa Coffee’s director of IT, Mark Dermody, who delivered a keynote on the company’s digital transformation. He began by stressing the importance of digital and how it is a “huge customer trend” which you should “ignore at your peril”. Dermody went on to name a number of major brands which had “failed to adapt” and gone under or struggled as a result. Dermody believes we are “on the verge of a technology revolution”, mentioning that firms like Uber and Airbnb are at the forefront of this. “Uber is the largest taxi firm but doesn’t own any vehicles. But they own the important bit, the customer experience.” Dermody went on to state that companies like Costa “have to innovate or die. Disrupt or be disrupted”. He added: “There needs to be a top-down commitment to digital. You have to understand your customers and to do this you need great customer data.” In terms of future plans for Costa, Dermody talked of Costa Collect, a service the firm is working on at the moment which would allow customers to order from an app and pick up in-store.

Next up, this time in the payments theatre, was Vincent McKevitt, the founder of Tossed, with his session titled ‘From 6 to 21 tills – lessons learnt from a cashless store’. McKevitt talked about opening the first completely contactless store in Europe. McKevitt believes the success of Tossed is “because we’ve adapted”. The business model, healthy customisable food made to order, is a slow process, said McKevitt, noting that as a result the firm has had to speed up its ordering and payment service. Tossed made some changes in 2012, making customers order at the till and enhancing its grab-and-go offering. However, it was not until 2014 when the firm started work on in-store kiosks. Then in 2016, after 18 months of development, Tossed rolled out four of its Android tablet kiosk terminals. The kiosks started to be rolled out to other locations, with the Upper Thames Street site the first to go completely cashless with 12 in-store kiosks. McKevitt noted that guests like it and that “very few miss cash”. So is it working? “Yes” is the simple answer, according to McKevitt. The kiosks are driving very strong sales and average transaction values are on the rise. “It’s not without its complications,” he added, “but I believe we have the best front-of-house operating system in the world in my opinion.”

The final session before lunch was with James Newton, an insight manager at Asda, and Guy Yehiav, CEO of Profitect. The joint presentation was titled ‘Prescriptive analytics, machine learning and the Internet of Things’. Newton spoke of the legacy reporting systems at Asda, explaining that “over time we have gathered this massive sheet of reports which we keep adding to. We have more than 100 reports circulated around my area of the business weekly”. Newton realised that the first action he needed to take was to find which reports were actually used, and then decide what actions needed to be taken on the back of this. After a procurement process Asda selected Profitect and its reporting suite which uses more than 50 patterns to analyse and sends actions to a clearly defined end-user. Yehiav said: “When you send reports to someone you get different answers to the same question. People will look at the report differently and reports are not often linked to the action they need to undertake. We help Asda by cutting out the need for interpretation.”

After lunch, over in Conference Theatre One Dave Robinson, the head of loyalty and personalisation at Boots, provided his views on ‘Creating an insight-driven customer experience in omnichannel retail’. Robinson, who has been at the High Street retailer since 1995, noted that 90 per cent of its advantage card holders were women and that 95 per cent of its sales came via bricks and mortar outlets. However, despite this, Robinson said: “What’s interesting is the role of online when driving sales in-store. If we can get systems working well, we can influence customers in an offline environment.” Most of the data Boots holds, said Robinson, is advantage card data. As the retailer continues to gather more and more data it must turn these analytics and knowledge into actionable insights, according to Robinson. “We have to engage with our customers or potential customers to increase satisfaction levels. We obsess less about where the channel growth comes from but rather encourage a connection between online and offline.”

The penultimate session was a panel discussion on ‘Reimagining retail stores for mobile shoppers’. Seated at the table was Simon Blosse from Accenture, who acted as the moderator. Joining him were Karen Harris, managing director of intu Digital, Dave Abbott, retail omnichannel manager at The Dune Group, and Rupal Karia, managing director of retail and hospitality at Fujitsu. Asked about what they saw as the biggest challenge for retailers in terms of attracting customers, Karia cited figures indicating that 44 per cent of consumers have a poor or very poor experience when they shop on the High Street, and 73 per cent have no loyalty to particular stores. “So we have to customise every experience” he said. Abbot spoke of the need to “empower your colleagues”, adding that “having the best technology is key.” Harris claimed that “mobile is the only channel for us. When customers come to you they come with their entire shopping world with them.”

Asked about the future of shop assistants, Abbot said that there was a change in what employees’ responsibilities were. Harris added: “Customers have high expectations. It’s a fine balance between shop assistants being in the way or whether they can help you do something more quickly. There will always be a role for personalities in a store.” Karia furthered: “Personalisation is different so someone might be annoyed by a person in-store while others may not.” So what does the future hold for retail technology? Abbot talked about payment technologies, and believes that “contactless will get larger and larger and contactless payment devices will get even smaller”. Harris noted that intu are looking 3-5 years downs the line. She said: “It’s all about mixed reality environments. It’s going to come and it’s going to come quickly. Virtual reality and augmented reality will come together.” Karia, on the other hand, was more interested in technology that has “already been out for a while”. He added: “For me, I’m excited by the use of technology that’s already there but is just starting to be adopted.”

The final session of day one was titled ‘Hyperpersonalisation – how Intercontinental Hotels used real-time data to personalise messages in real time’. Running the session was Charlie Aspey, email marketing manager at Intercontinental Hotels Group, and Nick Worth, CMO of Selligent. Worth began by saying that he believed Millennials and Gen Z wanted more convenience and that “they expect us to know them not as a segment of society but rather as individuals. They are less concerned about privacy and want more personalisation. Worth passed over the Aspey who spoke of the work between the hotel group and Selligent designed to better reach and engage with its customers. Guests now get real-time personalised emails and the group has produced a rewards club which “engages and informs”. Other functionalities which have been added include live weather forecasts, which have helped double click-through rates, as well as email receipts, which have helped create “a more omnichannel approach”.

Day two

Day two of RBTE began with a talk from Paul Wilkinson, head of technology research at Tesco Labs, who discussed the steps that Tesco is taking to incorporate new technologies such as the Internet of Things into the Tesco customer experience. He noted that the retailer is testing almost all of the new technologies in Tesco Labs, but the one that has shown the most promise is the use of in-store barcode scanners – which experienced a greater success rate than use of Amazon Buttons in a trial phase.

Wilkinson also announced the launch of Tesco’s online integration with Google Home on the day, which uses machine learning to understand how and what customers like to order. For example, it will assess your favourite and regular orders so when you ask Google to “order bacon” for instance, it will automatically choose your favoured bacon choice.

The integration of state-of-the-art technologies is clearly on the mind of the whole industry, as Visa’s head of merchant services and business innovation, Natasha Toothill, highlighted its importance in the next keynote speech. “Science fiction is becoming science fact”, she noted, citing the technologies used in futuristic film Minority Report, such as retina scanning and personalised advertisements, and how they are becoming a reality today. “Use of new technologies is all about speed and efficiency,” according to Toothill, who stated that retailers must ensure that they have the right balance between security and frictionless commerce when implementing new systems.

A panel discussion on ‘How to improve the digital customer experience’, moderated by Spencer Izard, chief analyst at Ovum, followed on from that. Panellists from Sainsbury’s, Practicology and Asda discussed the importance of linking the online and offline experience for customers. A key part to this is personalisation, according to Rosalyn Potts, digital customer experience manager of Asda’s George.com, who said: “Personalisation currently has a lot of momentum. Asda is now looking at making the shopping experience relevant to customers, rather than previously being focused on getting the customers online or in-store.”

Fabrice Khullar, head of product – digital channels at Sainsbury’s, agreed with this sentiment, highlighting the importance of being able to uniquely identify each customer in being able to provide a seamless experience. Khullar also spoke of how Sainsbury’s is starting to organise its teams to develop a unified back-end team to improve efficiency and communication across the business.

The panel also discussed the importance of the store associate in providing the best possible customer experience, with Khullar describing the importance of employee training to ensure everybody is on the same page. “Store associates are the front line,” said Lucy Mansdorf, principal consultant at Practicology, who agreed that it is very important to motivate and inspire staff to work with customers.

Training and motivation of staff was a key theme in the next session too, which saw Sean O’Connor, head of online product at John Lewis, discuss the successes of a recent trial which included store associates being equipped with iPhones “to serve customers and perform routine daily tasks quickly and knowledgably”.

Coupled with an upgraded in-store Wi-Fi system, the new mobile service system includes a number of features which customers in a user experience workshop said would help enhance their in-store experiences. For example, the phones include the ability to scan product barcodes to see further information and user reviews; the ability to build a basket with the customer and complete the transaction through mobile, transfer to a till-point, or email the basket to a customer so that they can complete the transaction at home; or check stock availability information for in-store, online and other local stores.

Following the trial in Cambridge, John Lewis witnessed a clear uplift in sales, while the last six months has seen the retailer gather more than 30,000 new emails in their database. Some 95 per cent of associates regarded themselves as more productive with the iPhone, while three quarters of staff felt happier in their role as a shop assistant with the new tool. This has resulted in a further roll-out of the new service, with sights set on Chelmsford and Liverpool next, before the flagship store in London and the rest of the UK in the coming months.

A panel on NFC payments and digital wallets followed, with representatives from Sainsbury’s, Verifone and Samsung Pay analysing the different mobile wallets that have launched in the UK and how merchants are adapting to the new forms of payment. Adam Bialy, head of payment technology at Sainsbury’s, described the retailer as “a bit confused” with the sheer amount of wallets and solutions that are available to invest in. He said that mobile wallets will only become successful in the UK “when there is value behind those services; the only value proposition at the moment is convenience”.

To tackle this issue, Nathalie Oestmann, director of Samsung Pay Europe, outlined Samsung’s new loyalty programmes for customers. Currently only available in the US, Samsung Pay has now incorporated gamification in its rewards programme to incentivise use of their digital wallet, while Oestmann also discussed how the increase in mobile wallet usage has significantly reduced the rates of fraud.

All of the panellists noted how advanced the UK market was in terms of contactless usage, but that is far behind the likes of the US when it comes to mobile wallet usage. They also discussed the impact that PSD2 may have on the payments market in the UK, and how a retailer or merchant’s data may be used. Interestingly, Bialy referred to customer basket data as the “holy grail of retail” and spoke of the importance to maintain control of that data – labelling it “the most prized possession that any retailer has”.

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