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Retail Technology Show: Rising stars, pendulums and pillars

We’ve been hitting the conference circuit recently and it’s good to be back. Derek Palmer, Director of Development at Transform, headed over to the Retail Technology Show last week and here’s what he had to say about it.

It was a novelty to get back to a retail industry trade show after a few years of pandemic and a spell out of retail.

With 350 companies present and technologies that included networks, store hardware, fulfilment solutions, POS, CRM and customer engagement, it really underscored the scale of the challenge retailers face today when it comes to deciding where to invest, and how to orchestrate a winning set of capabilities.

As well as the vendor stands, there were three streams of presentations from retail leaders and gurus, some having grown up in the age of mobile and social media and others with decades of “bricks and mortar” experience.

Several of these topics impacted my journey through the show.

Rising stars

First, the Metaverse, the rising star of last year (I am told) was gone, only receiving mentions in jest. Can you guess what took its place as the most widely featured subject? 10 points to you if you said AI.

Just about every product, from customer facing bots to network management tools, had AI prominently on the feature list. How much of it is genuine AI is hard to tell, and how much extra benefit it will give over predictive algorithms is unclear but there was wide confidence it will improve the effectiveness of existing tools and take back-office automation to new levels.

In the talk tracks, opinions were mixed on the success of using bots with customers – “yes” for some support activities and “no” for supporting sales and retention.

Another rising star of this year’s show was unified customer experience.

Furniture Village and Red Ant gave a presentation of a solution they have implemented that seems to have done a great job of joining up online and store journeys, alongside empowering store sales staff. The Red Ant product provides a complete “Retail OS”, enabling Furniture Village to work around their legacy platform and quickly, create something effective with a claimed 6-month payback.


Retailing is cyclic. Some technologies and trends come and go, like the pendulum on a clock. A huge swinging pendulum this year is the instore environment.

John Ryan, Managing Director of New Stores, talked through examples of high-profile retailers going back to a much more physical and authentic feel in their stores, ripping out large video panels to instead focus on effective interaction with physical products in a pleasant space. When you can provide a good video experience at home or on a mobile, why use valuable retail estate to replicate this? The likes of Burberry, Google and Zara were all cited as following this trend.

Constanze Freienstein, former CEO of Lands’ End Europe, highlighted another focus area, coming back to prominence this year: customer retention. She advocated for a strong focus on customer lifecycle management, development of longer-term engagement strategies and for retailers to move beyond personas and segments, to respond to customers individually.

Two other speakers made a big thing of retention. Wizz Selvey, CEO – Wizz&Co, pointed out that the most profitable businesses were those focusing on Retention and Loyalty. George Sullivan, CEO and Founder, The Sole Supplier, showed the tangible benefits of giving value to customers, through value adding engagement on social media, even when they aren’t buying.


Everything I saw this year pointed to the need for further focus on the basic pillars of our retail technology capability.

First of all, data. Most speakers approached it with a heavy air of pragmatism. No one was advocating data lakes and large investments. The view was:

  1. Have the skills and relationships between tech and business users to understand where data can be applied to have an impact on outcomes

  2. Be able to quickly assemble and analyse new combinations of data

  3. Create more opportunities to use data to impact experiences, optimise performance and improve decision making

Providing value adding experiences, exploiting AI and continuing to drive down costs will all require greater use of data. Retailers need to focus on skillsets, culture and technology capabilities in this space.

I'll call the next pillar 'Agility'. If retailers are to stay ahead in serving changing customer needs and responding to the vagaries of an uncertain world, they need to be able to change rapidly.

There were great examples of companies embracing agile for a specific project, but many retailers still seem to be struggling to be Agile at the core. What I mean by that is the ability to ruthlessly prioritise investments of time and money, be disciplined about a minimum viable proposition, and deliver incremental value, quickly, in short and progressive bursts, with cross functional teams. A number of speakers mentioned the importance of solid test and learn capabilities which is another facet of Agile but with many still relying on waterfall approaches and only applying agile methods in the actual delivery, Agile opportunities and benefits aren’t being fully realised.

The third enduring pillar highlighted as an impediment and an area requiring investment, is core systems, or 'the legacy'.

Red Ant’s Furniture Village presentation was a great example of a business that's managed to work around the legacy to create a strategic capability to cross channel customer experience. This option could work well in a lot of retail settings. The question remains though, ‘What about the next thing to come along, where the legacy system may be a challenge?’ – subscriptions, international expansion, provision of services as well as products. The ideal would be to progressively engineer out the legacy platform and there are many advocates of moving to a more micro service-based architecture, that should be inherently more flexible in the future.

So they’re my key takeaways from this year’s Retail Technology Show.

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