One of the most enjoyable aspects of attending the Retail Business Technology Event in London (which completed its fifth successful year of operation in March) is that it’s so easy to see in real life what it being talked about at the event. London is a hotbed of very competitive retail shops. The city remains one of the world’s top performers when it comes to retail sales, and the UK overall ranks among the top countries in Internet sales (#1 in 2013). So if you want to see what is happening in Retail, there is no better place to look than London.
One factor that makes retail in London so interesting is the high service profile that is in evidence in the Oxford Street (London’s High Street) stores. Of course this is driven by the fact that so many of those stores are fashion outlets, where service is important. Nonetheless, it’s hard to go into one of the stores without taking notice of the great service being offered — not just by employees but with the help of technology too.
So it isn’t happenstance that this year’s RBTE event was really three events in one, with a technology expo, a digital signage expo, and a store design expo. In London at least, it’s easy to see all three of these at work on the shop floors, creating a visually exciting and information rich environment, all intended to create a compelling shopping experience for consumers. London retailers seem very focused on modernizing the storefront, embracing the convergence of physical and digital selling environments. That is most likely because the retailers that I had the opportunity to talk to at the event seem very comfortable with the notion that consumers begin their selection processes outside of the four walls of the store. Omni-channel is just the way people shop nowadays, that’s all.
But in the end, service is best demonstrated not only by clever and flashy technology on the sales floor, but by engaged and engaging employees. The question for retailers today is how can they engage today’s tech-savvy employees? Beyond the obvious give employees the tools they need to help them help customers shop, it turns out that today’s employees want the same thing that people have always wanted, to have a positive impact on their organizations. With that as an underlying belief, several conference speakers focused on how their companies engage employees.
For example, Chris Hewerston, the CTO of GLH Hotels, gave a presentation in which he talked about how GLH made its decisions about the cloud-based solution portfolio to be used by all four of its hotel brands. Instead of dictating the solutions, Chris and his team set up a competition where the hotels would choose which systems they would use in their daily work. The technology team developed the design criteria (open API’s, modular SaaS architecture, mobile-led interfaces, a viable business case, and an intuitive UI), and reviewed the recommendations for compliance to the criteria. One of the outcomes of that process is that the people operating the hotels understand their systems. A measure of that acceptance and understanding is that of all the calls the support center gets, less than 20% are about the technology (the rest being about the best way to accomplish a task).
Another excellent presentation about employee empowerment was offered by James Wintle, the Global Director of Digital & Technology at AllSaints, a London-based international fashion retailer. James talked about how his company fosters a social mentality to communicate our Brand Value. He pointed out that AllSaints is all in-house, where the employees have input on store design, fixtures and store layouts, and the source and manufacturer of the fashions they sell. To promote social communication both inside the company and with consumers (and “to kill the e-mail culture!”, said Wintle), the company partnered with Google to implement Google+ for all communications. “Google+ behaves like a social platform”, said the retail technologist, “and it’s a rich experience. We can embed video into our communications” — for example to show how a display should be set up. “It just works… like a consumer product”, exclaimed Wintle.
The point of AllSaints’ pursuit of a collaborative environment is to convert its employees into Brand Ambassadors.
As the RBTE event has grown, it has expanded it’s conference schedule, bringing in speakers like Hewerston and Wintle to discuss how their companies face the same issues that retailers everywhere must deal with. In the cases highlighted here, the subject was about how to engage employees, in the belief that engaged employees make good Brand Ambassadors, and ultimately that serves both the customer and the company better than a bare-bones self-service shopping experience. As I visited the stores on Oxford Street later in the evening after the conference, I could see that the speakers are right — when retail employees are not just selling the Brand, but actually are a part of the Brand, shopping is actually fun!