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Driving the next generation of digital retail


Retailers and academics are coming together to help drive continuing innovation in digital retailing.

“Our main mission is the advancement of digital retail through collaboration among academic and retail partners,” said Richard Last, senior director of the Global Digital Retail Research Center at the University of North Texas, during an interview with Chain Store Age.

Last, who has helmed the center since it launched in April 2013 and has previously overseen digital retail programs for retailers such as J.C. Penney, said the center has four main goals. These are researching and solving industry issues and problems, supporting objective thought through informational activities such as seminars and lectures, developing students into the next generation of digital retail leaders, and providing awards of distinction for scholars and innovators.

However, Last makes it clear that the center is not simply an IT think tank.

“We’re a consumer research group, not a technology group,” said Last. “We work to understand the customer journey. What are the touchpoints? Where are the pain points? What is the pattern – nothing is linear.”

Last said specific areas the center focuses on include Big Data and how it can be used to improve the customer experience, as well as the integration of back-end systems with data processing.

“Retailers need to have a true single view of inventory,” said Last. “To allow customers to buy online and fulfill at the store, they need to be able to find an individual SKU and the easiest way to get it to the customer. Amazon has been solving these issues since before most retailers thought about them, so the bar is raised high. Our members have the advantage of brick-and-mortar stores, but how do you make it seamless for the end customer?”

One retailer that has had a positive experience participating in the center is founding member Pier 1 Imports. Stacey Renfro, senior VP of e-commerce at Pier 1, described some of the benefits Pier 1 has obtained.

“The overarching benefit is that in collaboration with the university and other fellow industry partner members, we collectively discuss and determine actions needed to address the current and future states of retailing,” said Renfro. “To be more specific, we receive access to university research on topics including global retailing, social media, omnichannel and digital.”

Renfro went on to describe how Pier 1 integrates information and research it receives from participating in the center into its IT operations.

“We have not yet implemented a ‘solution’ developed at the center, but we have certainly benefited from the knowledge transfer of academia and industry around specific solutions,” Renfro said. “Companies typically invest in sending associates to conferences with this objective. However, the center goes a step further in providing the benefit of what is typically achieved in the smaller breakout sessions at industry conferences.”

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