Posted by: Geoffrey Barraclough  |   Comments  No Response

The big theme du jour in retail technology is the convergence of marketing and IT. It’s no secret that the CMO is the CIO’s new best friend and this was spelled out loud and clear at yesterday’s Retail Technology Summit in London.

Aimed at a senior but technical audience, this conference typically features earnest Powerpoint decks crammed with process flow diagrams and enterprise architectures supplemented with top tips on how to make IT “relevant” to the business. Not in 2011. Today, the technologists are talking marketing.

The presentationswere blessed with a variety of titles but pretty much everyone arrived at the same conclusions; that mobile delivers about 10% of web-traffic and so needs to be taken seriously, that mobile makes stores more, not less, relevant to today’s shoppers and that you don’t have to choose between mobile apps and a mobile-optimised website (phew).

These are all marketing questions and it’s clear why IT Directors are asking them. Websites, m-commerce, kiosks and self-checkouts are all software applications used directly by shoppers without the benefit of a user manual. Getting them right is non-trivial and can’t be safely left to marketers when the CIO gets the blame when the customers complain.

But why so little talk about systems, service orientated architecture and cloud computing? Surely a flexible, scalable, robust and… er… agile IT function an essential pre-condition for success? Well, possibly because for many retailers the technology outlook is as uncertain as the economic one. We simply don’t know how shopping behaviour will change and whether real people will be as excited about location based promotions or the ability to check-out on a mobile phone as that nice chap from Google was.

So much, we knew already. To my mind, the conference was long on talk but short on facts and lacked the case studies you’d expect at this level of event. I felt myself drifting in a sea of rather undifferentiated panel debates in which everyone agreed that mobile really was terribly important. That said, a few speakers did stand out.

Top marks to Kiddicare’s CIO, Simon Harrow, for demolishing received wisdom like a JCB on rocket fuel. Another stand out was Caroline Rolfe from Links of London, the only female on the rosta and a marketer to boot, who delighted us with a tale of gnomes, Facebook and a riot in Glasgow. 

 A final mention for Mike McNamara, CIO of Tesco and the man with the biggest desk in UK retail technology. Reversing its policy, the supermarket giant is now in favour of electronic shelf-edge labels (e-ink swung it, he said) and will be resurrecting its RFID project as the readers have got cheaper. Mike also admitted what I had suspected, that the famous “shopping wall” in Korea was an awesome piece of global PR rather than a serious business initiative. You see, CIO’s really are the new marketers.

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