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Retail Week Live: Retail chiefs take the lead on industry automation

Seize Digital
Author: Miya Knights

Managing the impact of digital transformation has become a board-level concern over the last few years, where a gathering of retail industry leaders in London this week served to validate this trend.

Retail Week’s annual Live conference offered knowledge-sharing sessions dealing with topics as diverse as “using brand heritage assets,” “knowing your customer” and sustainability. But they all came back to tech.

As such, it was notable to hear so many talked heads of business keen to talk up their tech-based attempts to manage sales migrating to online channels, as well as any ensuing supply chain and store footfall challenges.  

The increasing importance of retail tech led Judith McKenna, Walmart International president and CEO, to focus on the role retailers have to play in helping today's workforces transition to a world of automation.

“As retailers, we are huge employers and are increasingly becoming tech companies, so keeping quiet about managing the transition to greater automation is not an option,” said McKenna during her opening keynote.

Even Seb James (pictured), who was appointed as senior vice president and managing director of Boots UK by parent company Walgreens Boots Alliance just over two months ago, cited tech solutions to tackle a range of issues.

The pharmacy and health and beauty retailer is 170 years old. But James said legacy systems and thinking had cast a shadow over Boots’ ability to transform. “I think heritage can make us fearful of change,” he stated.

“It’s right to be proud of what we are. But we need to find a way to be even prouder of what we’re aiming to be.” Alongside a store estate and brand refresh, he flagged new website search capability launching soon.

“We will offer the best search out there, to make it easy to find all of our amazing content,” explained James, adding that this was just one of the 160 current projects designed to improve Boots’ multichannel offer.

Managing customer data

James also picked up on the need to “know your customer” as a requirement many retailers said was essential to ensure it is possible to personalise offerings according to their relevance to target customers.

“We treat you the same if you’re coming into a Boots to buy a £130 face cream or £1 toothpaste. That has to change,” he said, adding that the application of predictive analytics to patient data can enable early diagnoses.

The impact of digital was certainly evident in discussions that centred on competing against Amazon. Again, here, the leaders in attendance were quick to recommend the use of customer insight for differentiation.

Peter Prichard, Pets at Home CEO, for example commented: “It's about working out what is important to our customers. We understand our customers emotionally. Amazon doesn't understand emotion, it's a machine.”

When it came to practical solutions for automating insight gathering from customer engagement, one fashion retailer presented the early results of a project to use Apple and Google mobile wallets for pushing marketing notifications in-store.

Malene Da Silva, Polo Ralph Lauren EMEA retail marketing director, said the retailer has created a new marketing channel to increase in-store redemption rates and sales conversion, while incentivising repeat visits.

“The footfall and store conversion delta is 80%,” she said. “We wanted to improve that metric and track the uplift from both existing and net new customers who engaged via the mobile wallet-based campaign.”

Trials have been so successful Polo is rolling the wallet marketing campaign out UK and then Europe-wide. Although no US rollout is planned, Da Silva confirmed regional sales from push now exceed email marketing.