IT services and solutions for retail and hospitality

Guest blog

Driving the In-Store Digital Experience
  • 25 Nov 2019
Unlock the Future of Retail: Driving the In-Store Digital Experience
Guest blog by Jake Marshall, Content Executive, Mercaux It’s hard to imagine reading about the future of retail without seeing the word ‘digital’. Much of the commentary on the store of the future is centred around digital transformation — the idea that retailers need to ‘adapt or die’ as they face increasing pressures from e-commerce. It’s clear that the future of in-store retail is digital. But what does this actually mean? As part of Mercaux’s store of the future report, we surveyed senior executives working in retail to find out more. So, what exactly should we expect from the digital store of the future? Customer Centricity Unsurprisingly, 87% of retailers believe that customer expectations will become more important when defining the store experience in the future. In a digital age of social media, e-commerce and instant gratification, customer expectations are ever increasing. Whether consumers demand an efficient service to fit in with their busy lifestyles, or they are looking for a personalised, curated retail experience, technology is key. 85% of customers expect click and collect today, while cutting-edge technologies like interactive screens and augmented reality are a future expectation for 76% and 84% of customers. By putting the customer first, retailers benefit from increased customer lifetime value and brand loyalty. Yet only a fifth of retailers report that they are capable of reacting to shifting customer expectations quickly. Many need to invest in basic tech functionalities – like click and collect – before they can move on to experimenting with more advanced in-store technology such as augmented reality or touchscreen mirrors. Empowered Employees Earlier this year, Retail Assist conducted a survey between Gen X, Y and Z, and found that the vast majority of people are using smartphones as an extension of their everyday lives: with this in mind, it’s needless to say that shopping habits have evolved to follow suit. Stores are continuously competing for their shoppers’ attention against smartphones, which offer a distracting stream of inspiration and rich content. So, when 40% of retailers say that their employees don’t have enough product information to effectively make a sale, how can store staff keep pace with the endless amount of information available online? The challenge lies in empowering sales associates with product information and content like branded digital lookbooks, marketing videos and social media content that they can use to inspire shoppers and tell a story about the brand. This challenge presents an opportunity to increase dwell time, build the customer relationship and help store staff to feel more empowered, to take ownership and to therefore achieve greater job satisfaction. Consistent Experiences The role of the store is shifting. 80% of retailers said that the most important purpose for the store today is a place for people to purchase products. When you look forward five years, however, the same number of retailers expect the main purpose of stores to shift towards being experience and discovery centres. The modern shopper is channel agnostic. With this comes a need to create…
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Nelson Blackley - "The High Street is Returning to its Roots"
  • 9 Sep 2019
“The high street isn’t a thing of the past – it’s simply returning to its roots”
Guest Blog by Nelson Blackley, Retail Research Associate at Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University Much of the recent commentary around how to revive the UK High Street has centred on a requirement for it to provide a mix of retail (both national and independent stores), food and beverage, entertainment, community hubs, healthcare and other service provision, as well as homes. In other words, shopping spaces need to provide a social function, as well as delivering commercial or transactional benefits. These views are strongly supported by the fact that some of the towns and cities that have successfully reversed the national decline of our High Streets over the past few years have done so by developing community-based and socially-driven models. Great examples such as “Bishy Road” in York or Graham Soult’s work with Chester-le-Street’s town centre and the success of Belper have seen the local retail landscape thrive in otherwise challenging times. However, this concept is nothing new. This social function of shopping has been around for much longer than many might imagine, compared with ‘transactional retail’ which is less than a century old. Retail markets have existed since ancient times with archaeological evidence for trade, probably involving barter systems, dating back more than 10,000 years. In the UK, public trading spaces in the centre of towns and cities only really evolved during the 17th century, with a wide range of products on sales from a range of merchants and so providing an ‘experience’ or sense of discovery for the shopper. The rise of the middle class in Victorian England during the 19th Century created an even more favourable attitude to shopping and consumption, and High Streets became the places to see and be seen – places for recreational shopping and promenading. In the second half of the 20th Century, with a post war boom in car ownership, the ‘traditional’ British High Street came under pressure from new large, out-of-town retail parks and then, towards the very end of the 20th Century, ‘bricks and mortar retailers’ wherever they were located, faced the new competitive threat of online retailers operating in a global marketplace – arguably the ultimate ‘transactional’ retail model. As a result, physical spaces where people shop have now had to evolve – often with smaller retail units, including independent and pop-up stores – many providing local produce and more social spaces, offering food and beverages, as well as leisure, entertainment and community facilities. The UK retail sector faces huge societal, economic and technological change, but evidence suggests that the social role played by shopping will increase in importance once again and those towns and cities which reflect this in their retail offering will not only survive but thrive. So, despite many suggesting that shopping in physical stores is a thing of the past and that the UK high street will soon disappear, neither is true – shopping is simply returning to its social roots.   You can read more of Nelson’s retail reflections in his blog, ‘Retail Views…
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Retail Assist Celebrates Its Platinum Anniversary
  • 17 Jun 2019
Now We Are 20! Retail Assist Celebrates Its Platinum Anniversary
Written by Alan Morris, Retail Assist’s Founder This year, Retail Assist will be 20 years old. Against a backdrop of fear that planes would fall out of the sky, power stations would melt down and – worst of all – tills in shops would stop ringing, in 1999 we created a business that was not only ‘Y2K compliant’ but ready for the 21st Century. By the mid 1990’s, it was clear to us that a paradox was occurring. Retailers were starting to demand more from technology but their attempts to harness the power and reap the benefits were being thwarted by a lack of technology providers that understood the sector. The big IT players dominated the industry and, whilst they were technically capable, they clearly didn’t understand the nuances of retailing. Alan Morris, Gary Broughton and Nigel Illingworth Recognising this, we created Retail Assist to be ‘retail ready’. We put the business use for the technology at the centre of everything we did. We created service level agreements that measured system performance in the overall context of business objectives; picking accuracy, sales data reporting and warehouse throughput were some of the outcomes measured each month, instead of just focusing solely on the technology layer as our competitors were doing. We employed people from a retail background to work on the front line of our operation to ensure the dialogue with our clients was conducted in a language that was meaningful to both sides – a standard that we still hold true today. We understood that retailers must be flexible; they have lots of ideas and need to act quickly to survive and get ahead of their competition. Yes, we needed processes and procedures to ensure that what we did was replicable to the highest quality standards, but rather than put in place a standard, off-the-shelf methodology, we took the best bits of several different ones and created our own. Adopting this meant that we were able to keep pace with our clients’ demands whilst maintaining order and control over the architectures we were building. As the retail industry continued to evolve, with new channels to market being created, expanding trading geographies and variable opening hours, our proposition changed too. We invested a lot of time, money and endeavour to ensure that we kept sight of where the retail industry was headed and where new technologies and innovations could support and drive retailers forward. But now the role of technology in retail has changed; it is no longer just about supporting existing processes and making them, bigger, better, stronger and faster. Technology now defines the retail operation because customers are demanding an experience that means its involvement is imperative. This means that retailers are having to re-invent themselves in order to remain relevant to their target customers: this is not an easy challenge and it is one that is testing every aspect of their business. The need for speed and flexibility around deployment to support the retail proposition has never been…
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What Can the High Street Learn from Independent Retailers? 00 Degrees
  • 20 May 2019
“Keep what you do simple”: We talk to 200 Degrees in the next instalment of our retailer mini-series
Written by Anna Murphy, Communications Executive The UK’s first coffee shop was opened in Oxford in 1652: walk down any UK high street today and you’re bound to come across at least one. However, with so much competition – both from chains and local establishments alike – what does it take to grow in an otherwise busy market? This week, we continue our video mini-series on what can be learned from independent businesses as we speak to Matt Douglas, Marketing Manager for 200 Degrees. Originally starting as a roast house, the brand expanded and now have eight shops around the country, including Nottingham, Birmingham, Leeds, Cardiff and Sheffield. Offering a mixture of both hospitality and with retail areas within their store estate, 200 Degrees serves great coffee in stylish surroundings. Watch the video here: Click here to watch the video on YouTube Matt explains: “We started off as roast house originally, then added our shops to showcase our coffee products. The shops were turned into an experience all of their own and really transform people’s perceptions (of a coffee shop).” So what’s 200 Degrees’ differentiator? Matt says: “We engage all the time with people around us. We run several different types of activities and events or experiences; we’ve got a barista school upstairs (in the Nottingham flagship store) and we’re also looking at opening up our roast house to show how it goes from a raw bean to what you enjoy. “We really want people to have an (excellent) experience every time they come into the store, from the moment they’re greeted…all the way to sitting down by the fire. It’s an escapism.” What advice would Matt give to larger chains? He says: “I think keep what you do simple and easy for the customer to understand: it needs to be that frictionless experience. It is the meeting and greeting people at the door – a really small thing, but making sure it’s positively done and welcoming. Also, all the in-store events do give another reason to come to the high street other than beyond (just) drinking a coffee. “We are going through a growth phrase and we are learning and understanding how difficult it is (to stay true to the brand whilst growing). But one of our key values is to make sure we retain that community aspect and that focus on the experience.” Watch Matt’s video to see more insights into how 200 Degrees approach their store strategy and don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel here to stay up-to-date with our latest video releases.…
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Doughnut miss this! Retail Assist & Doughnotts
  • 23 Apr 2019
Doughnut miss this! Our video mini-series continues with Doughnotts
Written by Anna Murphy, Communications Executive Frosted, glazed, jam or chocolate: however you enjoy yours, we know a store that’s got the perfect one for you. We continue our video mini-series, as we look at what larger retailers and hospitality vendors can learn from their independent counterparts, talking to Wade Smith, Director of Doughnotts. Along with his business partner and Co-Director, Megan Scaddan, Wade started Doughnotts in 2015. From humble origins in a family kitchen and starting with just £10 and a wok, the pair grew the brand from a doughnut delivery service to their first doughnut bar in Nottingham. And we’re not just talking any old doughnut; with themes, seasonal products and treat-laden doughnut rings, their products look as good as they taste. With further stores now in Derby and Leicester, and new stores planned to open in Nottingham and Lincoln this year, the duo have had to change and adapt their retail strategy to fit customer demand. Watch the video here: Click here to watch the video on YouTube So what can larger retailers learn from Doughnotts? Wade argues that retailers should listen to their customers, be ready to adapt and to keep it simple. Wade explained: “The concept of our stores has changed three times now. So (the first store in Nottingham) was a takeaway, then we opened a sit-in place in Derby, then when we opened Leicester, we thought ‘right, we need to go back to a takeaway.’” “However, we are changing our concept of in-store again. With the new store that’s opening in Nottingham, there’s going to be an in-store bakery so that you’re going to be able to come in and see a baker making doughnuts there and then.” Doughnotts also has a loyal social media following with an impressive 50,500 Instagram followers. But rather than over-complicating things, when it comes to a social media strategy, Wade also prefers a straight-forward approach. He explained: “So for growing Instagram, we were basically just posting every day. It was talking back to customers and sharing customers’ photos. We have a very, very Instagram-able product: Instagram was made for this!” If you’d like to see more videos in our high street retailer mini-series, subscribe to our YouTube channel here.…
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What Can The High Street Learn From Independent Retailers? Bird & Blend Tea Co.
  • 8 Apr 2019
What Can the High Street Learn from Independent Retailers? We launch our new video series
Written by Anna Murphy, Communications Executive Lights, camera, action – this week sees the launch of our latest video series! Filming on location, we talk to the independent retail disruptors and what the high street can learn from them. In our first video, we speak to Krisi Smith, co-founder and Creative Director of Bird & Blend Tea Co. As expert tea blenders, their store space provides a mixture of retail and hospitality opportunities; having grown from a bedroom in Krisi’s mum’s house in Nottingham, Bird & Blend has now evolved to include seven stores across the UK with a global online presence, too.   Watch the video here: Click here to watch the video on YouTube Krisi explains: “We’re very much an omnichannel business. As we’ve grown over the years, it’s been quite a challenge to make sure the service levels are delivered consistently across all our channels.” Setting them apart from their competition, Bird & Blend is innovative in the way it engages with its customers, especially through their use of store events. Inviting customers into store, Krisi and her team have organised yoga classes, cocktail nights, Valentine’s Day meet and greets, tea blending workshops and prohibition style drinks events. But with so many innovative customer experiences, how do Bird & Blend maintain personality and a customer-centric focus whilst also expanding their store estate? “It’s really important to us that everyone gets the same customer journey,” says Krisi. “We do a lot of training around that with our teams to make sure that everyone gives the same intro to the brand, with the same recommendations and the same experience, but that our team members also have enough freedom to bring their own personalities into the spaces that they work in.” With a quarterly tea range as well as familiar favourites, Krisi develops their products by taking inspiration from food trends, fashion, travel and also customer suggestions from social media. “We’re really experienced based in-store,” says Krisi. “The most exciting zone in all of our stores is the tea wall where customers can get down different teas to sample.” Customers are always encouraged to engage their senses, with team members encouraging customers to smell and taste the teas, offering personal recommendations on how best they prefer to serve them. Watch Krisi’s video to see more insights into how Bird & Blend approach their store strategy and don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel here to stay up-to-date with our latest video releases.…
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Nelson Blackley
  • 27 Feb 2019
Online retail is here to stay, but will it ever overtake offline sales?
Guest blog by Nelson Blackley, Retail Research Associate at Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University The recent, mixed, Christmas trading results from UK retailers with large numbers of physical stores has led many commentators to link this underperformance directly with the increase in online shopping. However, this is unfair and far too simplistic. The origins of many of the current challenges faced by retail pre-date the retail revolution caused by the launch of Apple’s first iPhone in 2007, including under investment in digital technologies and unrealistic rent increases. Whilst reliable internet access, combined with technological development and the universal availability of smartphones (for many, mobile phones are now simply an extension of us as consumers) has had a huge impact in most people’s lives, the growth of online retail in the UK has followed a fairly steady trajectory. Since 2007, online retail has increased from around 5% until, at the end of 2018, online accounted for just 20% of total UK retail sales. However, this total varies across different retail sectors, and by individual retailers, with only around 7% of UK grocery sales being online compared to almost 30% of fashion being ordered online, along with higher online sales penetration levels in music, video, games. We are at the intersection of major technological, economic and societal change. However, online retail has not yet completely replaced physical stores, nor, in my opinion, is it ever likely to do so. Many shoppers use mobile devices to access product information or place orders whilst in-store (and are often encouraged to do so). Shoppers may also go online to find locations and opening times of physical stores or order online and then collect in-store. A much more complex and dynamic relationship has now developed between the two. Gone are the days where shopping is an ‘either/or’ option for bricks-and-mortar and online; the osmosis between the two is cohesive, with successful retailers offering a unified omnichannel experience. I would also argue that this separate measurement of either online and offline retail sales is itself now obsolete (and probably also inaccurate given the high levels of returns in online fashion) as no hard dividing line between online and offline (physical shopping) occasions or experiences should exist. Online retail and physical stores will both play a major part as UK retail continues to change and evolve, and retail will undoubtedly remain a key sector in the UK economy; however, it will do so through a range of different channels and places. It’s now all just retail, not a binary choice between online or offline, and all that matters to consumers is that they get the product they want, at the price they want, when they want it and where they want it. You can read more of Nelson’s retail reflections in his blog, ‘Retail Views and News’.…
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Is Mt Machine Learning about Retail?
  • 13 Feb 2019
Talking Shop: The Place of Voice Recognition Technology in Retail Part Two
Guest blog by Alan Morris. Alan is the co-founder and brand ambassador of Retail Assist. The retail sector knows better than most the effects of disruptive technology – and the consequences of ignoring it. Retailers are seeing what they always believed to be the case challenged, improved or replaced: it’s now all about what customers want, when they want it and how they want to receive it that counts. All of this started with the first online sale: Sting’s album ‘Ten Summoner’s Tales’ in 1994. From this point onward, customers started to realise that if you want to buy something, you don’t necessarily have to go to it – it can very easily come to you. The internet provided the platform for e-commerce and this changed the way that we shop forever. So, what impact will readily available, easy to use, accurate, reliable voice recognition technology have for retailers? A report by OC&C Strategy Consultants (February 2018) claims that the value of voice shopping in the UK now stands at £0.2bn, or 0.1% of total online spend, but it is expected to rocket in the next five years to £3.5bn. The report states that just as the prevalence of smart phones drove the m-commerce market, voice commerce is set to grow as a result of rising smart speaker sales, which have boomed since 2014 when Amazon launched its first product to market. Around 10% of UK households already own a smart speaker but this is projected to increase to 50% by 2022 as voice recognition technology becomes increasingly widespread.  I am told that every conversation about voice recognition technology must include a reference to Amazon; as an Amazon Prime customer, I can order and pay for kitchen rolls, bin bags and make other replenishment purchases by asking Alexa to order it for me. It’s quick, efficient and means that I can shop whilst cooking my breakfast – something that Alexa also helps me with by counting down the time it takes for my egg to boil. But it’s not just staple product sales that can be made using a digital assistant. In 2018, Retail Assist’s client ASOS launched ‘Enki’, their AI shopping guide, which allows customers via Google Assistant to interact directly with the brand to get style advice and to make purchases. Customers can send Enki photos of clothing items they like and the technology will search for similar products, then present them as a range from which selections and purchases can be made. ASOS admit that Enki is still learning and they are asking customers for feedback on the good and the bad of the experience, as well as providing any dream-big ideas for Enki’s future direction. This is an excellent example of collaborative development; retailers asking their customers what they want to make their shopping experience better. So, when will our digital assistant, using all of the data it has available, be able to identify which outfit we should buy for an upcoming social event in our…
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Is Mt Machine Learning about Retail?
  • 11 Feb 2019
Talking Shop: The Place of Voice Recognition Technology in Retail Part One
Guest blog by Alan Morris. Alan is the co-founder and brand ambassador of Retail Assist. It’s somewhat ironic that I’m writing a blog about voice recognition technology, at the beginning of 2019, using a computer keyboard that’s an adaption of the original typewriter built in 1873. The QWERTY keyboard has been the input device of choice for millions of computer users across the world for nearly 50 years and it remains central to human-computer interaction today. But, whilst it has a past, does the keyboard have a future in relation to how we use technology in our everyday lives? If you consider that the average person can speak 150 words in a minute but in the same time frame can only type 40 words, you realise that speech is a human’s best form of communication. How many times have you thought that some things are “easier to say, than to write”? Given this, you’d be forgiven for questioning why computers weren’t designed to respond to the spoken word from the get-go: surely, that would have been more intuitive? Well, technologists have been trying to get computers to recognise and respond to the human voice since 1952. One of the very first examples was ‘Audrey’, who could distinguish ten numbers between 0 and 9 and, whilst at the time this was acknowledged as significantly advanced, compared to the human brain it was somewhat lacking. The problem for the early pioneers was that the technology was very computer resource hungry – which meant costly – so widespread adoption was unlikely. As time moved on, so did the technology. In 1962 IBM launched ‘Shoebox’ which could recognise a vocabulary of 16 English words and by 1976 ‘Harpy’ later increased the word count to 1011. Continued advancement saw the introduction of faster microprocessors, which meant the opportunities for voice recognition grew. By 1997, ‘Dragon Dictate’ allowed users to speak at 100 words per minute – two thirds the normal human speed. Impressive, yes, but it took 45 minutes to train the program and it cost about $695. In 2010, Google launched personalised recognition on Android devices which would record different users’ voice queries to develop an enhanced speech model. It consisted of 230 billion English words. One year later, Apple introduced the world to its voice-activated digital assistant, Siri. Not only intelligent, Siri was funny too, if asked the right questions or given the correct commands. So, over a 66-year period, voice recognition technology moved from being able to distinguish between the ten numbers to providing us with a voice activated digital assistant that listens to our speech and takes specific actions based upon our commands. Some predict that by the end of 2021, more than 1.6 million people will use voice-activated digital assistants on a regular basis. But if it is ever to become a ‘can’t live without technology’ we are going to have to accept that this technology has to offer more than just timing the boiling of an egg, playing our…
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Bill Joss Q&A
  • 31 Dec 2018
Retail Reflections: “The biggest challenges for tech functions haven’t changed much in 40 years!” Retail Assist’s Chairman, Bill Joss, shares his insights
Written by Anna Murphy, Communications Executive Janus, the Roman god of new beginnings, faced both forwards and backwards, and so had the ability to look into the past and the future. As we approach 2019 and all the new beginnings it will bring, we speak to Retail Assist’s Chairman, Bill Joss, to reflect on 40 years of working within the technology sector and to also look forward with his insights into retail and technology trends of the future. Bill, you have 40 years of experience within the technology industry. How have consumers evolved within this time? The main evolution in how the average retail consumer shops can be split into two segments. The first focuses on shopping behaviours as this now includes consumers with higher levels of computer literacy – something that would have been unheard of 25 years ago – joined with a higher ability to access and analyse information online; along with this change in how we operate is linked to increased expectations on the choice of items and sourcing via mobile technology. The second segment is comprised of the expectation of service; this includes the demand for fast responses to enquiries, the requirement for a smooth ordering process, immediate – if not free – delivery, plus an easy and fast returns and refund process. With all those changes in how consumers interact with the retail landscape, what do you perceive to be the biggest developments in retail technology so far? For me, the biggest developments in retail technology includes CRM-enabled omnichannel retail systems supported by faster IT solutions, with more accessible customer data and, increasingly, AI-powered analytics. Other important developments are unquestionably handheld apps and mobile technology payment systems. So, with 2019 soon upon us, let’s look forward. What changes in technology do you see making the greatest impact on the retail sector? Without a shadow of a doubt, the greatest impact has come from online, accessible websites, a social transition to handheld mobile technology and a growing deployment of AI. For retailers, the increasing proliferation of retail specific tools, such as a WSSI, stock management systems and PIM supporting online systems, will accelerate the switch from physical shop premises and ensure precision in a progressively challenging retail landscape. What predictions do you make on the future of technology? The immediate future is about increasingly intelligent self-learning systems and AI-enabled tools that collect customer data within CRM systems and facilitate individual or consumer-specific offers and promotions. What are the biggest challenges that the tech industry is facing right now? To be honest, the biggest challenges for technology functions haven’t changed much in 40 years! Broadly speaking, functional issues with application development and the delays associated with it can all slow progress and efficiency. However, with the growth in modern retailers’ omnichannel offerings meaning a demand on many data sources, the duplication of poorly qualified data can have a huge impact on retail businesses. What do you predict will be the tech mantra for 2019? It’s got to…
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