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If you’re going to open a department store for just one day, location is everything. So choosing to set up shop at the top of one of London’s 10 most difficult places to get into might not sound like the best business idea. But it worked…

Last week more than 70 retailers crammed into BT Tower to experience Retail Unleashed – a day fully focused on the pivotal role mobile technology has to play in providing an omni-channel service. And to demonstrate all of this, Alexander Black’s department store took over the 34th floor so people could see how the full retail journey plays out, from home to HQ, via click and collect, supply chain, shop floor and back office.

Before the store opened on the 34th floor, however, we heard about mobile from three key angles: retailers (with Pets at Home’s Brian Scott), analysts (Marcus Hickman of Davies Hickman Partners) and suppliers (with BT Expedite’s Tanya Bowen). So what did we learn?

Mobile devices: who will gain the upper hand?

The day kicked off with Marcus Hickman, consumer director at Davies Hickman Partners, setting the scene with some eye-watering stats about mobile usage and the next generation. He also revealed the results of a study where he had sent a group of tech-savvy young consumers out shopping, tasked with using stores’ mobile apps and wi-fi. The results were patchy – and showed that there’s still a lot of work to be done to arm store staff with the tools to serve customers as well as they now expect.

Wrong said FRED

Brian Scott of Pets at Home then shared his mobile experience – from pre-pilot frustrations with FRED (Fish Record Entry Device) to roll-out success with ‘PetPad’. Despite the pre-pilot learnings, Brian was clear that nothing was wasted – the company learned a huge amount from what hadn’t worked – and why. And all of this experience and knowledge went into ensuring Pets at Home’s subsequent mobile initiative, the PetPad (an interactive, integrated iPad mini with digital forms, guided processes and stock info) was a roaring success.

Brian outlined the company’s mobile vision, and detailed each of the phases involved in the pilot and roll-out. Brian’s top tip? Be brave. Go in for what you need, don’t do it half-heartedly, because mobile is “truly transformational”.

POS for thought

BT Expedite’s CRM and loyalty guru Tanya Bowen then rattled through some success stories, highlighting the very real impact mobile POS and clienteling tools can have on the bottom line. She illustrated this with figures from both sides of the pond – including Cole Haan, Under Armour, JC Penney and Aurora Fashions.

Then it was a brief “history” of Alexander Black from store manager (for the day) Mark Denton before being whisked up to the revolving restaurant on the 34th floor for the main event: some real click and collect demos over lunch.

The “customers”, a mix of IT, e-commerce, marketing and operations decision-makers from leading retailers such as Notcutts, TJX Europe and Sainsburys picked up the gifts they’d ordered in advance, while Alexander Black’s store staff – free to roam around with their smart mobile devices – demonstrated the benefits of getting to knowing each and every customer. We just hope no-one needs to return anything… the BT Tower is strictly invite only!

Posted by Mike King, CTO, BT Expedite

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Who will benefit most from our online world in the shopping centres of 2014? Will it be the connected buyers of tomorrow with the latest super-charged smartphones and tablets or will it be the savvy shop assistants with handheld digital databases geared to meet the demands and delivery needs of shoppers?

Since the unveiling of Apple’s App Store in 2008 – there are over 900,000 apps available today, not including ones for Windows, Android and BlackBerry – thousands  of retailers have set up shopping apps, and they’re now one of the most popular categories of downloads. But when consumers open a smartphone shopping app for the first time, it begs the question: do I even need to go to the shops in the first place? The reality is that apps are used most commonly at home, work and in transit but consumers are steadily adopting ‘showrooming’ practices as mobile networks and Wi-Fi become more available. In fact BT’s Autonomous Customer research earlier this year showed that 54% of 16-34 year olds had used their smartphone to scan products in store to check the best price online.

We asked some young consumers to try out a range of retailers’ apps and sent them on a shopping expedition. Here’s what they found:

Getting online – Getting access to shopping centre Wi-fi was not that straightforward: first, choosing the right network created some confusion and second, some providers wanted personal data and wasting one minute of shopping time some shoppers felt was not worth it. Thirdly, none of the Wi-Fi offerings worked for the whole of the shopping trip, from one store to another. Mobile coverage was hit and miss in-store.

Store location As long as 3G or Wi-Fi was available, the location services tended to be accurate. A list would appear showing the closest stores to their current location, including the exact address as well as the opening times. Most apps showed the retailers’ locations on a map. One well known retailer stated our shoppers were at least 0.5 miles away from the store when in fact they were standing in it.

Scanners – Most shopping apps had a scanner for barcodes found on products in order to access more information. This had a variety of uses, but only a few enabled them to see pictures and details and then buy online – very useful for out of stocks. The scanner was able to recognise the in-store price reductions being promoted on certain products, and in some cases it gave an online discount simply for using the app. But prices online didn’t always match up with those shown on items.

Ease of use – The retailers’ apps being tested generally had a smooth interface, although some were easier and faster to use than others: John Lewis stood out with its minimalist design meaning that our shoppers could find what they were looking for quickly and efficiently.

There were a few issues with bugs and some apps would crash consistently on iPhones. For example, this happened when trying to add clothing to an online basket, making one app impossible to use.

Rather than openly using apps in store, most consumers seem to be looking at their phones in an adjacent coffee shop or while standing in the walkway. Perhaps this will change, in the same way that contactless payments are now becoming more widely used.

The Apple App gave the best information as consumers entered their store – queue time for assistants or the genius bar. Of course, Apple staff have used handhelds themselves for at least 4 years, enabling assistants to take control of the shopping interaction and provide some memorable shopping experiences to consumers.  Finding stock, providing product information, making connections with other suppliers and taking the cash are capabilities that shop assistance offer. Nearly all consumers (97% according to the Autonomous Customer research) say that out of stocks whilst shopping in store should be easily ordered for home delivery, etc. But what about directions, training and a knowledge base for shop assistants? Or demonstrations?

How will interactions in-store work when both consumer and assistant have handheld devices:

Price comparison – Will shop assistants be allowed to negotiate on price there and then, factoring in the convenience of being able to buy immediately rather than waiting for delivery or going elsewhere?

Stock queries – Will consumers be given the same access as shop assistants to stock information: ‘I’m sorry but it says here there IS one out the back, if you’ll just look a little harder’?

The conversation – Will the conversation about the product’s strengths and fallibilities be better because it is informed by online knowledge (of the store but also the web)?

Video or text – Will content management strategies have to change to tailor to the store type and area?

In a sector which values innovation these applications of handheld devices in store make a compelling business case. And in an online world where many argue the smartphone will change the balance of power between consumers and stores, handhelds might just help stores re-dress the balance.

 

Posted by Marcus Hickman, Consumer Director, Davies Hickman Partners

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For a long time, whenever ‘the cloud’ was mentioned it was like it was something mystical. A platform with magic properties that would never fail. Retailers, especially those who have to run the IT, tend not to believe in magic and, being conservative in nature when it comes to stability, tend to believe in what they can see and put their hands on. It’s a shame as this has led to many retailers lagging behind in technology and spending more time being IT specialists and less time being retailers.

Then reality started to be applied. Some high profile failures in a number of cloud platforms meant that the old sell no longer worked. Service outages at Amazon, Microsoft and Google and a number of other high profile providers hit the regular press as they also underpinned key consumer services and the gloss came off the whole cloud story.

Strangely, this has been a good thing. With the mysticism removed, the cloud capabilities could be seen for what they really are. Superbly architected technical platforms with a focus on automation, scale and resilience or the same old data centre architecture wrapped up in a glossy wrapper. Underneath all of that lovely marketing is a collection of servers, cables, software, scripts, gaffa tape, engineers and blind faith that exists in every data centre (the big ones tend not to rely on the tape and faith but if you look close enough, you’ll find some). The reality is, it’s a blend of both.

The clouds are like banks, another highly relevant example. Banks are based on trust and when the trust goes, the bank will fail. Your average user cannot see what goes on inside the bank so you can only trust that if you put your money in, you will be able to get it out again. As we have seen recently, if you can’t get your money out when you need it then the trust is gone and you will move your money.

It’s the same with the cloud.

We’ve seen the recent impact on services from the Amazon cloud-based network (with NetFlix, Pinterest and Instagram very public sufferers) and the on-going threats to migrate. I suspect some companies are finding that getting out is significantly harder than getting in (just like banks) but they will all have the same problem. Who can do it better?

It all comes down to the same old question that IT has always struggled with. Do I do it myself or pay someone to do it for me?

If I do it myself I may not be the best, but at least I’ll know where the weaknesses are and I am master of my own destiny. If I let someone else do it, I trust that they have the best people, the best equipment, and the best processes that I could never afford. It’s the IT equivalent of putting your money under the bed or using a bank. Personally I think that this is good for the future of IT. It’s never sensible to get caught up in the hype of an idea without understanding what you are actually getting into. Once you understand that you are just buying a service from someone who does one thing that you need better than you could ever do it, life gets a lot easier. But the important bit about the cloud is the thing that often gets forgotten. The network.

So when considering running part of your critical systems in the cloud, make sure you put it somewhere with the best network…

Posted by Mike King, CTO, BT Expedite

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Fashions change fast. What was once innovative, suddenly becomes adopted by the mainstream and is seen and expected everywhere — just like technology.

Retail customers who have become used to free access to Wi-Fi in coffee shops and restaurants now expect in-store Wi-Fi — they want to be able to check in with their email and stay connected to social media while they’re shopping, just as they would at home or on the move.

However, retailers have been reluctant to offer free Wi-Fi as customers have previously come to the store to see the product up close, tried an item on, and then gone online to get the cheapest price.

Therefore, a retailer’s dilemma is: how can we use Wi-Fi to further enhance the advantages of a store?

Enabling consumer’s Wi-Fi access allows retailers to offer a more interactive experience; they can engage directly with a shopper while providing a truly personalised experience. They are able to present customers with a virtual and in-store journey and increase loyalty with unique promotions, geo-localised offers, click and collect, extended aisles, e-wallets and augmented reality

It also provides customers with the chance to communicate with staff in that store, in others stores, or even their call centre.

It’s proved successful for eight of the leading Prupim UK shopping centres which giving retailers the opportunity to promote their stores, and highlight special centre events and messages to 118 million shoppers.

With 52 per cent of people now using a tablet or smartphone while they are out shopping, it only seems natural to improve their in-store visit with an interactive experience: are you going to be offering customers free Wi-Fi?

 Posted by Ralph Hengstenberg, Marketing Director UK Markets, BT Global Services

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We’ve just taken the first (pretty major) step in our technical investment roadmap with a brand new e-commerce site. We’d had a bit of refresh, design-wise, last year, but the new platform that now underpins it all has really brought the change to the fore.

Long before the project kicked off, we’d drawn up a hit-list of what the new platform should be capable of. Getting something stable in place, something that wouldn’t fall over as we continued to grow was a given; but we also wanted a genuine multichannel hub, and one that could be a springboard for an ambitious international expansion plan.

Top of the list, however, was getting an engine that would help us trade the site better. So what have got for our money?

In terms of the roll-out itself, it was a textbook project, delivered on time and within budget. This was no doubt due to the fab project team we had. It was all very collaborative and confirmed that we were right to go with a supplier who knew the retail sector just as well as it did the technology.

Behind the scenes, we now have a centrally managed online presence, with one central database. Previously, we had to manage separate sites for each country manually so there was a lot of duplication and things tended to not get updated. With a new French site on the horizon, this is going to be much easier to maintain.

We’ve also got a mobile site in the pipeline, to make things as easy as possible for our customers.

The redesign also means we have more space to showcase our beautiful products and, for a visual brand like Cath Kidston, this is absolutely vital. The new BT FrescaCommerce platform enables us to pull up products and promote them easily, with a simple drag and drop utility.

So for example, on the old platform our ‘Big Spot Dog Bed’ always appeared at the top of pages no matter what we tried! It’s a lovely bed, and any dog would be proud of it, but the fact is, we don’t sell a huge amount of them and we have so many other items that were never promoted. Now the dog bed – or anything else we choose to promote – has to earn its place on the site…

Posted by Amy Bastow, Ecommerce Director at Cath Kidston

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