The role of IT in many companies has shifted from the department that ‘keeps the lights on’ to a business unit that has potential to be a profit generator as well as a cost saver.

In the retail industry, IT directors are now looking at increased budgets, swifter systems development and an overall business requirement to provide innovative tech-based solutions to keep ahead of both customer demands and the competition.
This recognition of the benefits of a creative, engaged IT department as an essential part of a forward-thinking business is very welcome. But there is a danger in placing all the weight of innovation and evolution on the shoulders of any one business area.
In a recent post I discussed how internal tech hubs could push businesses forward – but key to this is the involvement of every department, and every level of employee. Because true progress comes from bringing these areas together – shaking off the ‘old school’ shackles of single-stream responsibility to work across all channels in a seamless, customer-centric way.
Rather than relying on specific departments such as IT to deliver designated results, businesses should be looking to use technology to converge their activities.
That means taking what might be seen by many businesses as a series of bold steps which challenge operational convention. In the case of retail, these steps involve:

  • Dismantling traditional business silos. It’s all one operation with one aim – to sell things to customers – whether you’re in IT, logistics, HR or facilities management
  • Converging all channels and remove the boundaries between them, whether they’re mobile, web, catalogue or in-store. It’s the only way to deliver a seamless shopping experience with the customer at its heart
  • Giving sales staff the same kind of high-quality, connected technical facilities as your customers – they’re a key asset, and they can’t hope to provide a first-class service with second-class equipment.

Of course, there will always be the need for specialist knowledge and skills-driven activity – the best people to run an advertising campaign will still be the marketing department, but it’s about having common goals and a universal vision of how you’re going to give the customer what they need, instead of fragmented development, disparate KPIs and sales attribution divided by channel.

Technology from the top down

 On the whole, customers aren’t interested in channels – they expect to have the same experience however they choose to interact with your business. They don’t want to feel that they’re dealing with different companies depending on whether they buy online or in person. Convergence relies on having the right technological infrastructure, with joined-up systems which ‘talk’ to each other and allow for efficient operations management through every part of the business.

Customers should be central to this – they should be able to access products, find and share information and make purchases when and where they want to, without having to give a second thought to what channel they are using, or having to jump through operational hoops to get what they want. The challenge is to make their journey from ‘browse’ to ‘buy’ as seamless as possible, using a combination of online, mobile and in person interactions to get them there.

Moving ‘mobile’ forward 

Conventional opinion says that a sea change of this nature is inherently difficult and time-consuming. But it really needn’t be onerous in time or cost. Once businesses realise that ‘mobile’ doesn’t just mean smartphones and tablets and that the wealth of data in each of their systems can be moved around with ease given the right kind of technology, a new world of improved efficiency, reduced costs and increased sales opens up to them.

Using middleware to enable legacy systems to speak to each other and extract valuable intelligence from customer data, it’s entirely possible to make small, quick enhancements to the customer experience which will immediately benefit the bottom line and give businesses the confidence to implement larger, more significant changes.
This week’s blog has been inspired by Retail Week’s wider report in conjunction with the Retail Week Technology & Ecommerce Summit*,  which concluded that the ‘risk has been recalibrated’ - all it takes is a small leap of faith on the part of retailers to break down the silos and build something better for the future.