Diving beneath the surface of innovation

Dan Hartveld, 31st May 2017

The most important fuel for innovation in retail is not the latest device or piece of kit: it's data.

This article originally appeared on Techworld.

At many of the industry events I attend, the most popular exhibition stands are the ones which have invested in the latest gadgets, from VR headsets to robots. People queue up to try them out, and it makes perfect sense – most of us are attracted by the promise of new technology, and there’s no doubt now, for example, that we face a future assisted by AI. But there’s a danger that the allure of the new will distract us from what it really takes to innovate, and that runs much deeper than just bolting on a new piece of kit.

The truth is that the wellspring of innovation doesn’t lie in a shiny new device or augmented reality programme (though they both certainly play their part). In fact, its most important fuel is not especially new or ‘trendy’, and every retailer already has more of it than they know how to use.

It’s data.

The true pioneers in retail – the ones which will lead the way in delivering relevant experiences which actually mean something to customers beyond a fleeting interest – are focusing on connecting their data from every business area, every device and every customer touchpoint. And the reason there aren’t more retailers taking this approach is because, on the face of it, it seems much more difficult than just issuing staff with iPads.

Making the connection

Thanks to a plethora of systems from legacy to third party, the sheer number of processes it takes to keep a retail business running successfully can be hard to quantify. As an example, here are just a few of the most standard systems:

  • Transaction processing systems
  • Customer relationship systems
  • Business intelligence systems
  • Knowledge management systems

Once you take into account that each of these areas are likely to have their own subdivisions and that often separate versions exist for each business area, it is not surprising that retailers are reluctant to tackle the mass of information which has roots and branches across their entire enterprise.

Feel the fear and do it anyway

However, retailers who want to remain relevant (let alone be seen as innovators) are faced with a stark choice – overcome their concerns and take steps to connect their operations or lose sales, customers and, ultimately, brand position. Connected customer experience is key to retail success in a fast-moving, technology-powered world where consumer behaviours are rapidly evolving along with their expectations.

That means mobile-first, context-appropriate, consistent experiences that work by connecting data and functionality from across the business, and making them useful and easy to access whenever and wherever customers choose to shop, as well as providing sales colleagues with modern, easy-to-use, pragmatic tools to ensure they can make the difference for customers.

Fortunately, connecting data and building these experiences is nowhere near as tricky as it may seem – the right platforms and processes, complete with pre-established integrations, have the power to collect and collate a wealth of data from each business area into a central point, allowing for no-risk integration, scaling, and data management.

Robots and VR headsets are great for high-level engagement – but, however much they may look like the future, they’re not the key to innovation. Bringing together data from all business areas, from customer service through to stock management, into a single connected platform is the only way to truly revolutionise retail in a way that drives efficiencies, delivers excellent customer experiences and increases sales.