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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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At Fat Face, we’re no strangers to excitement and danger. A sense of adventure runs through the whole company, originally set up to support two friends skiing in the Alps. But it’s a fine line between the thrill of beating a black run – and the embarrassment of being air-ambulanced off the slopes.

When it came to our recent POS replacement project, we knew any mistakes could bring the whole mountain crashing down on us. And no one jumps in to rescue off-piste retailers.

It was a brave decision to replace the old system, no doubt; it was dead on its feet and in danger of toppling over at any point, but the project wasn’t without risks of its own. Massive benefits if successful; the very survival of the business at risk if we failed. And we had a timescale that looked impossible on paper and landing right at the start of peak trading.

Having come from the rather less adrenaline charged surroundings of Marks & Spencer, the POS project at Fat Face was a real eye opener. You tend to imagine similar approaches and processes on a bigger or smaller scale depending on the size of the organisation, but IT change projects in small to medium businesses bring with them a whole new set of challenges.

So, for example, in a large organisation you might have people whose full time jobs revolve around one aspect of the project. That’s not the case in a small retailer, where people have to be prepared to learn new skills, take on new responsibilities and push themselves out of their comfort zone – on a daily basis. That needs a real entrepreneurial mindset.

It doesn’t mean internal stakeholders have any lower expectations – if anything, they’re much greater as they have a lot more skin in the game. And with disparate and ageing systems, the requirements are often much more complex.

Similarly, there’s less governance and less large change project expertise in-house – so it’s vital to have a technology partner that you can depend on and pull in to help when needed.

And lastly, budgets are smaller and there’s absolutely no leeway. You might take a £m hit in a big company for going over budget. In a small company, you could bring the whole thing down. That’s a huge amount of pressure to deal with – and because it’s not a faceless “department” at fault, there’s nowhere to hide. You’re exposed and you’re accountable.

But, when it goes right – and despite a few late nights and scary moments our POS project went spectacularly well – there’s no better feeling. You can genuinely see the difference your work is making to the business, its people and its customers. And after a quick breather, you’re off looking for the next mountain to tackle.

Watch the BT Expedite Fat Face video case study: Cloud-based, omni-channel POS system designed, deployed and delivering the goods in just nine months

Posted by guest writer Leon Shepherd, Business Change & IT Director, Fat Face

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Sometimes the best new technology may not actually be that new

‘A place for everything and everything in its place.’ This somewhat trite aphorism may sound hackneyed, but apply it to the world of technology and retail and it still has considerable validity. The best technology is genuinely useful, whether it’s in-store iPads with staff around to help you use them, or perhaps the better self-scan applications that you might come across when you’re in a hurry.

The downside is that for every productive use of technology, there can be a snowstorm of solutions in search of problems. The approach for some seems to be to invent a piece of software and then think of a scenario in which it might conceivably have some use. The outcome is something that is almost invariably unwanted.

For the best front-of-house technology however look no further than Burberry and Primark. Burberry, because its Regent Street global flagship really is a place where shoppers are given the chance to use what might be termed “assisted technology”. Every member of staff packs an iPad, there are mirrors that turn into screens with product information and there’s even a giant screen that streams Burberry runway shows live to an invited audience.

Figure 1: Burberry

None of this is terribly remarkable taken in isolation, but it’s the combination and deployment of the technology that is what really counts. And this perhaps is the point. Most of what retailers need may already be available in some form, but the smarter technology offers are about using this in a novel manner.
And for an established technology that is being put to new use, look no further than Primark. The discount fashion outfit has been given space in Selfridges newly-opened Denim Studio in its Oxford Street flagship. And as it’s about fast fashion, a self-scan unit has been put in.

Figure 2: Primark

This would be normal in a supermarket, but it’s a novelty in a fashion store and shows how thinking beyond your immediate competitor set can pay dividends when it comes to thinking about what might be done with an existing technology. Think not therefore about finding something completely new. This will almost never happen. Consider instead how you can do more with what’s already out there and who is in the business of making this happen.

Posted by guest writer John Ryan, Stores Editor, Retail Week and Drapers

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There used to be a time when the board would set out its aims and objectives for a retailer and IT would then try and make sure the technology in place was, at best, an enabler. IT was a challenge to overcome. That’s no longer the case. Technology decisions are driving change; and with the new norm of omni-channel and consumer tech penetration driving the majority of retail growth, companies who can bring IT into the business at a strategic level are pulling away from those with a more traditional outlook.

Technology has become more than an enabler. It is shaping everything from business processes to in-store experiences. In other words, technology is finally driving and delivering the promise of brands. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the technology you choose will dictate how you operate, how your people work and how your customers will view you.

Just before Christmas BT Expedite completed a project with Fat Face which highlights just how important IT is in delivering on brand expectations – and how beneficial it can be to have technology driving change.

The Fat Face initiative was focused on a complete replacement of the EPoS system. As a project, it’s impressive enough in its own right; it was delivered in half the usual time (just nine months), and withstood the rigours of a record-breaking peak trading period in its first few weeks of operation.

The solution – what we call our Connected Hosted Retailer suite – covers a whole range of things including: EPoS (Store 6.3), Sales Audit, and Customer Relationship Management; a managed payment service, specifically designed to meet the PCI DSS standards; and an e-learning solution – BT View – an intuitive online training and messaging platform delivered through the EPoS.

Fat Face crew member tries out the new EPoS

Fat Face crew member tries out the new EPoS

All that is worth shouting about on its own… but the fact that all of this is hosted on a cloud-based platform represents something bigger; a step-change in technology’s place within the business. Fat Face now has a centrally managed IT infrastructure that’s fully in line with its needs as a business and its ambition as a brand.

Fat Face has bags of personality and a sense of adventure that runs right through everything, from its history (set up by two friends supporting their skiing adventures in the Alps) and marketing campaigns to its products and people (or ‘crew’ as they’re known in the business).

It’s the kind of business that wants and needs real flexibility and agility. It has to grasp opportunities as they become available and deliver the experience customers expect. That was impossible within the limitations of the legacy EPoS system. Change was a slow, costly exercise – and the company’s ambitions were being stunted by its technology. Multichannel retailing was a patchwork of different systems that ended up forcing store staff to jot down orders details on bits of paper before phoning the call centre to check for stock, or even using their own smartphones to place online orders for customers!

That’s definitely not the case now – and the benefits are being felt throughout the organisation.

So why exactly is this so aligned with delivering on the brand promise?

Firstly, people. Fat Face crew tend to be young and tech-savvy. So when it comes to using systems, they naturally expect the same level of user experience they get from consumer technology, in terms of accessibility and usability. The new EPoS is intuitive by design, with context sensitive onscreen help buttons to bring up instant step-by-step ‘how to’ guides. This helps get new crew members up to speed quickly, while simpler processes free them to spend more time with customers. The business has saved hugely in annual training costs as till training has been cut from 1 week to just a matter hours for each sales assistant. This also drives staff satisfaction as new people very quickly become effective members of the team.

Secondly, for a brand like Fat Face, moving quickly and grabbing opportunities is in its DNA. The new system means opening new stores is a much easier, quicker and more cost-effective process. IT resources and processing power can grow and shrink as needed. With less CAPEX required, there’s less risk and with no servers to support, lower planning overheads for new stores. As a result Fat Face is much more responsive – for each new store, everything can be deployed, or decommissioned, remotely. Having no need for on-site hardware also means that stores can be located in smaller sites such as stores in seaside resorts (there’s even one on Aviemore) or in temporary locations as pop-ups.

This ease of expansion breaks down borders as well. Crabtree & Evelyn, the first UK retailer to make the move to BT’s cloud-based system, has recently expanded operations in Germany and the timescales and processes involved were not that much more complicated than opening a new UK store.

These on-demand POS pioneers, like Fat Face and Crabtree & Evelyn, are likely to be followed by something of a landslide in the next few years as attitudes towards technology within retail organisations change and businesses seek ways to invest less while remaining at the forefront in terms of business capabilities. As a result, we’ll see IT being brought right into the heart of the organisation, with technology initiatives that push the business – and the brand – forward.

Useful links

Video: Watch Crabtree & Evelyn cloud-based EPoS case study

Posted by Josh Pert, CEO, BT Expedite & Fresca

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