As the Retail Week Technology Summit 2012 takes place in London this week, Chris Brook-Carter shares his thoughts on the importance of the sector.
From supplier to store, and head office to home, no sector in retail touches upon so many key areas in such a strategic manner as that of technology.
As the breadth of speakers and topics at this week’s Retail Week Technology Summit 2012 highlights, the reach of tech executives into retailers’ lives is ubiquitous.
What a transformation. The image of the IT team sat apart from the rest of the business, in essence seen as a support service to the decision makers in other departments, is archaic in the best retail companies.
We exist, and businesses operate, in a world now where technology has gone mainstream. Barely a day passes without newspapers running stories of QR codes, cloud computing, social media, digital downloads or electronic payments. Meanwhile, more than half of British adults own a smartphone, one in 10 has a tablet device and a staggering £50bn was spent by UK shoppers online last year.
The internet, then smart phones have revolutionised the way we can connect with consumers. And if you didn’t think that was enough change to keep up with, there are many who believe we are to be hit with another wave of technology, from augmented reality to interactive television that will represent yet another sea change in the way people shop.
It is an extraordinary opportunity and an exciting time. I heard Micky Drexler, chief executive and chairman of J Crew, say last week that he loved retail for its endless ability to surprise. What he didn’t say but what was implicit was that it’s this industry’s ability to harness the potential of technology that is delivering that wow factor.
These opportunities are not without their challenges. While IT directors are used to working within a state of flux, the pace with which they are being asked to keep up is unprecedented. But the role of the IT executives has changed too. They are now central to the decision making process.
When one talks of innovation in retail quite clearly the responsibility now falls squarely at their feet. Rather than just overseeing the infrastructure with which others drive their businesses forward, retail directors should now be innovators and thought leaders.
With that heighted profile comes a responsibility to be at the heart of the business - to be retailers as well as IT directors, business leaders as well as followers.
The programme at the summit reflects the huge range of challenges and opportunities IT directors face across almost every touch point of retailing. There is also a strong common theme running through the two days - and that was change.
In particular, the summit focused on how IT executives arm themselves to best meet that change - whether future proofing the business, understanding IT’s role on the board, recruiting and retaining the talent the businesses needs or developing innovation.