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It’s a busy first day at Retail Week Live – the largest gathering of retail leadership in the UK. The event might not have ‘tech’ in its title but that’s the single biggest overarching theme for the conference: the topic more than 150 speakers are here to discuss, and thousands of attendees – to hear about.

It can be overwhelming. From bringing omni-channel experiences through emerging technologies, to thinking about how GDPR will impact your brand and making sure your workforce stays on top of technological innovations, there’s definitely a lot to take it.

One person who knows how to separate the nice- from the need-to-know themes and movements, though, is Helen Mountney. As the UK managing director at retail management consultancy Kurt Salmon (part of Accenture Strategy), she works with retailers and consumer products companies to deliver operating efficiencies, turnaround support, strategic planning and organisational design. With more than 20 years of experience in the sector, she is a thought-leader in the industry, regularly cited in leading publications.

We caught up with Helen to discuss some of the key themes and trends for retailers and emerging brands in 2018.

What is the state of the industry at the moment?

It’s not an easy time for many retailers, especially traditional ones. What’s interesting in the retail landscape is the amount of disruption that some of the new innovators are causing. I think technology has an important part to play in that and the successful retailers are those who embrace technology, those who have a really compelling digital offer and who are clear about their proposition to their customers.

On the other hand, not all successful retailers are very innovative with technology. But all of them have a very clear idea of who their customer is.

What are the key tech trends that retailers should be looking at this year?

There’s a lot of talk about automation and AI and what that’s going to mean for companies going forward. I think that the retail sector seems the least affected by some of the developments in these areas. I’m not sure many companies have sat down and understood what these developments mean in the context of their business and where they could really move their business on, and that’s a missed opportunity.

Those who are embracing these developments are typically the pure play, digital retailers, who will call themselves tech companies rather than retail companies.

I think there’s a real opportunity to use technology in the core value chain of a retail business. By that I mean in buying and merchandising, product development, design – where the use of technology can streamline the supply chain, reduce the product development lead time and enable retailers to make valuable information-based decisions, rather than managing the administrations of their functions which is what happens today.

There’s a lot of fear and talk how automation is going to put us all out of work. But whenever such revolutions have happened in the past they have not automatically replaced our jobs. It’s just that the jobs have changed. Automation has allowed for companies to grow and increase the number of jobs.

To that point, how can retailers make sure that their internal workforce stays on top of the technological solutions available to them and choose the right tools for their business?

I think that’s the challenge. AI for AI’s sake is not going to deliver a significant benefit. Understanding the context within which AI or robotics or any tech solution can play a really important part is what retailers need to consider.

For example, take a merchandising function where even today everyone’s working on spreadsheets and focused on day-to-day transactional activities. If you use AI or even just clever analytics to make sense of the multiple data points within a merchandiser’s sphere of influence, you can use technology to provide them with information about the customer, how they buy and their relationship with the store. That merchandiser then has an even more valuable job to do around planning, curating and managing a range. So that’s not about automation replacing a person’s job. It’s about automation allowing the person to do their job much more effectively. This job then becomes much less of an admin task and much more of a strategic role. That’s what people should think about.

retail week live

Why being innovation-led is crucial for traditional brands?

Department stores and many traditional retailers haven’t really moved on. Many of the stores look as they did 10 years ago. That’s where the introduction of innovative services needs to happen.  For me, the opportunity for department stores is around the service proposition – personalising the offering, knowing why people come into their stores and how they can differentiate themselves to that customer.

How do you see the role of physical retail changing?

The physical store is more important than ever as part of that wider, multi-channel experience that the customers has.

People still want that physical experience, the excitement when they come into the store, to feel the products. They might like to browse online but often purchase and pick up in store. So, the physical store is as important as ever, but as part of a connected experience with the other channels.

You have to make it exciting and easy for the customer. Make it an experience rather than a transactional visit to a store. Otherwise, there’s nothing that’s going to persuade people to get off their sofas and go to a physical location.

How have consumer habits changed when it comes to discovering and purchasing products?

They’ve become much more demanding. They have more choice than ever, they are much more value driven in terms of what they’re getting out of their purchase. Their expectations in terms of service is also greater than ever.

So if you fail to deliver on a promise to that customer, whether due to a poor experience in store or inability to deliver on their online shopping needs, then it’s very easy for them to go somewhere else. The concept of loyalty has changed massively, so you have to be able to deliver what people want every single time.

Is there a successful formula for combining efficiency and experience or should brands focus on one of these things?

I think retailers have to be able to deliver a level of service efficiently. Yes, Amazon does that brilliantly but if a retailer can’t deliver a certain level of service, they can’t compete. That’s critical.

The only way for more traditional retailers to live alongside Amazon is providing something more personalised and experience-based than the transactional and functional nature of purchasing through Amazon. That’s why the store plays such an important role.

How can emerging brands live in this competitive landscape? Have you seen any standout companies and upstarts?

If you have a distinctive proposition – whether that’s your business model, your digital capability, product or customer niche – whether you’re brand new or have been in the business for hundreds of years, you have the opportunity to succeed. New startups now are very well placed when they have these basics right because they tend to be digital natives and understand the importance of technology and the digital differentiator.

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