IBM’s software lab is a hive of technological development but is it able to solve retailers’ problems, asks Joanna Perry

It’s likely that you have never heard of Hursley. But while retailers get on with their day-to-day business, this facility in deepest Hampshire is developing ideas and the next generation of technology to improve the way retail works.

Owned by IBM since 1958, the site had a history of innovation before the IT company arrived – it’s where Vickers developed the Spitfire. The site now houses more than 2,800 IBM employees and operates as one of IBM’s main software laboratories and its largest in Europe.

IBM vice-president and lab director John McLean explains that the goal of the facility is always to create technology that can be put to use quickly. “We want to map technology to business problems. This is not a research location, but we are incredibly innovative and gain a number of patents every year,” he says. In fact, IBM UK & Ireland filed more than 140 patents last year and has already filed more than 188 so far this year.

But why should the work that goes on here be of interest to retailers?

IBM has created an innovation centre at Hursley that houses retail and RFID labs, which all of IBM’s retail solutions partners are invited to use. Since the beginning of the year, the centre has also hosted 30 retailers – including major grocery chains – that come to test technology and work on solutions to specific business problems.

There are two hours’ worth of demonstrations to see in the retail lab, but this is no store of the future – it is designed to show how today’s leading-edge technology can assist retailers with the issues they face. For instance, on display is PCMS’ IBM-based BeanStore EPoS system – being implemented by Marks & Spencer at present – as well as ZBD’s electronic shelf edge labels, which have been tested by Tesco among others.

The centre’s retail laboratory is set up to look like a store. And while it can be used to show quick demonstrations of how different suppliers’ technology can be integrated, the computing power and data storage facilities at the centre’s disposal mean that it can handle the actual volumes of data that a retail system would process. For example, Retail Week was shown a demonstration of electronic paper that can be used as price labels, with prices changed remotely throughout the day. Where IBM’s retail lab comes in is in demonstrating how a price change in one system can be communicated instantly to all the other systems that need to know about the change, such as the ticketing system and EPoS system.

IBM innovation centre manager Duncan Gill says: “A lot of our partners have fantastic solutions, but they need to see if they can scale from 20 to 2,000 stores, for example.” He explains that the idea of these demonstrations is to speed up how quickly a new solution can be rolled out. “A lot of our partners perform work here over one or two weeks to get to a milestone where they can invite a retailer in to see a solution working in real time.”

Next door to the retail lab is an RFID lab where retailers and their suppliers can see not only how they can integrate RFID into their business processes, but also examine the limitations of current RFID tags. The aim is to help retailers deploy RFID applications that are going to be fit for purpose.

Another initiative at Hursley is Emerging Technology Services. Before these applications are developed, IBM will bring together staff from its services organisation with those from retailers, so that the development teams understand what their problems are and what they are trying to achieve.

IBM demonstrated to Retail Week an example of the work that it is doing in developing location-based services for retailers. The application on show allows a customer and retailer to communicate using the GPRS connection on the customer’s mobile phone and is based on robust messaging middleware that IBM has had running in different environments for many years.

When a consumer books an appointment to come in and see a retailer – for instance, for a personal shopping consultation or to plan a kitchen – the software can send the customer a reminder, including a map, in a data message to their phone. The customer can then be detected via their phone when they enter the store for their appointment and a message sent to the relevant member of staff. At the same time, the customer can be sent further messages with relevant promotions that are in-store that day, for instance a message with a barcode that can be scanned at the tills.

At the end of the visit, the customer can also be sent a feedback request, which they can respond to on their mobile phone to ensure they were happy with the service. IBM envisages that this application could be given to a customer to load onto their phone as part of a loyalty scheme and would also allow the retailer to stay in touch.

IBM is designing another emerging technology to allow companies to exploit virtual worlds. At the moment, a retailer could set up a store in a virtual platform such as Second Life and IBM would advise on this. However, IBM is now working on an open-source version of Second Life to allow companies to create virtual worlds of their own.

IBM metaverse evangelist Ian Hughes says that it is clear that what people experience in Second Life is a different way of engaging. He believes that this opens up possibilities for virtual worlds in general. There are two big opportunities for retailers, Hughes explains. The first is as a selling channel, but one where customers can look at products, research them and discuss them with friends. He adds that this could work well for bigger ticket items, such as a TV, but might be taking things too far for simple grocery shopping.

The second is within an organisation, collaborating in a much more fluid way than e-mail or even instant messaging allows. He uses the example of a telephone conference where the first five minutes is wasted waiting for everyone to join in. In comparison, at a virtual conference, those first to arrive could walk up to each other and chat, just as they would if they were meeting in real life.

Hughes also thinks that another major internet development will be in internet browsers. He says that research is being done to create “a command line for the web” – basically allowing a user to ask their computer to find something on the web, retrieve it and use it, rather than the user having to find the information themselves.

If this all sounds far-fetched, then consider that there are already pieces of software – desktop widgets and iPhone applications – that fetch information without any internet browser having to be opened.

Hughes concludes that people’s expectations of the web have changed substantially in the past five years and any business that is worried about customer experience must address this.

Another Hursley initiative is the Extreme Blue programme, where computer science and engineering students come in for 12 weeks during the summer and work in groups to create solutions to business problems or challenges.

This may sound obscure, but two of the three that were demonstrated to Retail Week could be directly applicable to retailers. And these are not just seen as academic projects – if they have legs, IBM will take them forward. Within its innovation centre, IBM is able to run Extreme Blue projects to help customers and partners solve specific business problems.

Developments within the Extreme Blue programme in the past 12 weeks include the creation of a task-based interface. This could, for example, allow a buyer to state what task they wish to accomplish using a merchandising system and then only see options that are necessary for that task on their screen. The interface has been designed to work with many different types of applications.

Another project has explored how social tagging can complement the product information a business creates. In this case, the development was applied to IBM’s own product information centre. By adding social tagging to product information articles, users were able to find what they needed more easily, even if they did not know the correct IBM terms and jargon to search for. This could just as easily be applied to a retailer’s product information to allow customers to help each other find answers to their product questions.

In its leafy surroundings this facility may seem a world away from the front line of retail, but the work that goes on here may just one day change the face of the industry.