I have now been in my role as senior editor of Chain Store Age, specializing in retail IT coverage, for six months. Beyond being surprised at how quickly the past 180 days have gone by and grateful at how welcoming the industry has been to me, I also can’t help but be amazed at how much retail IT has changed since I was last actively involved in covering this field in 2006.
I previously spent eight years covering retail IT for a now-defunct publishing/trade show company, from 1998-2006. While there was a lot of change during those years, the rate and scope of technology evolution was not even close to what has happened in the intervening seven years I was off covering other business and IT verticals. Sometimes you need to step back for a while to truly appreciate how much a landscape has changed. So without further ado, here is my take on three retail IT game changers that have occurred since the mid-2000s.
Multichannel becomes Omni-channel
In the mid-2000s, retailers were pursuing a “multi-channel” or “cross-channel” IT strategy that aimed to link data on customer purchases, preferences and behaviors across all physical and digital channels. That has evolved to today’s more sophisticated “omni-channel” IT strategy.
Omni-channel has the same ultimate goal of improving the customer shopping experience, but instead of simply linking data across channels actually links experience across channels, so that a customer does not have to relearn new shopping methods or navigation and checkout procedures when moving from a PC site to a mobile site to a physical store.
Omni-channel retailing also usually means data and experience is linked in real-time, so that if a customer scans the barcode of an in-store item with their smartphone they can immediately locate it on the retailer’s mobile site, for example. This example leads directly to the second retail IT game changer of recent years.
Retail on the Road
M-commerce existed in 2006, but as more of a theory than a reality. Retailers that had mobile sites mostly replicated their sites designed for desktop/laptop access, resulting in incredibly clunky performance and poor graphics and navigation. Capabilities did not generally go beyond basic transactional and product search functionality.
Fast forward to today and m-commerce is a distinct channel retailers leverage for the unique capabilities of the mobile device, such as the abovementioned scanning barcodes for product information as well as real-time, personalized discounts and offers based on customer location, among other features. Retailers are increasingly recognizing the growing primacy of mobile as consumers’ preferred online channel by using “mobile first” responsive design strategies when building their digital commerce infrastructures.
Facebook did not become open to the general public until fall 2006 and Twitter launched in summer 2006. MySpace.com, the dominant social network of the time, had little business applicability other than as a means for independent musicians and filmmakers to preview their work. For all practical purposes, social retailing did not exist.
Retailers began setting up Facebook and Twitter accounts as those platforms began soaring in popularity, but it really has only been in the past couple of years that having a social presence has become expected, or that retailers have started conducting actual social commerce (mainly via Facebook). Throw in the fast growth of emerging social platforms like Pinterest and Instagram as e-commerce mechanisms and you have a well-established retail channel that did not exist seven years ago.
The only constant in life is change, and the retail IT landscape will look quite different in 2020, probably as a result of technologies we cannot imagine today.