IT services and solutions for retail and hospitality


Is Mt Machine Learning about Retail?
  • 13 Feb

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

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

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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Nelson Blackley
  • 26 Nov

‘Clicks to bricks’: an unexpected retail phenomenon

Guest blog by Nelson Blackley, Retail Research Associate at Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University What is ‘clicks to bricks’? Five years ago, some retail commentators were predicting that, by 2020, the unstoppable rise of online shopping would have completely taken over retail and driven ‘bricks-and-mortar’ stores to extinction. However, the Office for National Statistics claims that online sales currently accounts for around 18% of the total UK retail market and, whilst it is highly likely that this will continue to grow, it’s clear that the promised online ‘takeover’ of retail is unlikely to happen any time soon. An unexpected trend has emerged over the past few years, with online retailers and brands now moving ‘offline’ and opening stores, the so-called ‘clicks to bricks’ phenomenon. Even Amazon, the global online behemoth, now operates over 600 physical retail venues of various kinds around the world, including Amazon Go and through its acquisition last year of the Whole Foods chain. Which online retailers are moving into bricks-and-mortar? It’s an increasingly long list but amongst UK-based retailers these now include: Loaf was established in 2008 as an online retailer of beds, sofas and accessories, and now has seven showroom stores ‘helping consumers to relax and chill out with products showcased in realistic settings’ in locations including Solihull, Guilford and St. Albans. Missguided, the own brand womenswear retailer, also began purely online, gathering a huge social media presence amongst its target group of 16-34 year olds. They now have two stores in shopping centres in East London and Kent, designed to be ‘a deconstructed version of the Missguided website’, as well as concessions in Selfridges stores in Birmingham and Manchester. Joe Browns, an online and mail order fashion retailer, has also moved into physical retail, opening its first store opened in Sheffield Meadowhall last November. Their team are looking to create ‘an impressive three-dimensional version of our catalogue’ and a store which ‘crystallises their brand in a physical space perfectly’. But why now? With extensive consumer databases accessible through their catalogue and/or online operations, and integrated data processing systems, retailers moving from ‘clicks to bricks’ have in-depth and personal understanding of the changing demands and behaviours of their consumers, and so can ensure decisions are customer focused and market driven. ‘Clicks to bricks’ retailers also appear to have a clear view of the role stores play within their channel ‘mix’ and so are using their newly acquired physical space strategically to complement, rather than compete, with their online operations. Online retailers also recognise that a physical presence offers the consumer different benefits and can be used to reinforce a consistent brand image, as well as broaden the appeal of their brand. Stores have the potential to engage the customer’s five senses and so demonstrate how the brand looks, sounds, smells, feels and even tastes. Finally, fulfilling customer orders is one of the biggest outgoing costs for online retailers and so the move from ‘clicks to bricks’ can provide a more efficient way of getting…
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  • 5 Nov

Generation Next: how can retailers support Gen Z’s retail expectations?

Guest blog by Marketing Assistant, Hannah Waterfield Generation Z (born post 1995) are now the largest demographic in the world, accounting for 33% of the global population, with 2.5bn of them worldwide (Gartner, 2018) topping their Baby Boomer, Generation X and Millennial counterparts. The oldest of them are entering the workforce and the youngest of them are in primary school. They are the first demographic to have grown up with technology at their fingertips; they are ‘tech-innate’ and, by 2020, will make up for around 40% of the global consumer market (Adweek, 2017). But how do Generation Z differ from their predecessors and what steps can retailers make to keep them engaged? What does Generation Z want from retailers? Whilst technology is simply second nature to Generation Z, numerous retail reports have gathered that the vast majority of Generation Z value experience as opposed to assets. A 2017 Accenture Global Consumer shopping survey revealed that 60% of Generation Z shoppers prefer to purchase products in-store as opposed to online and around 46% of them check a product in-store before making an online purchase. Moreover, 67% of Gen Z say they liked to always shop in-store, while 31% said they liked to do so sometimes (IBM, 2017). This emphasis on physical experience suggests that Generation Z favour a shopping experience that amalgamates both the physical and digital side of retail, with an experience curated entirely towards their own favours and habits. The question is: how do retailers do this? How can retailers successfully interact with Generation Z? Although Generation Z might have been born with technology at their fingertips, it doesn’t mean that they’ve abandoned the high street. In fact, the interest in physical stores and online shops remains to be pretty even, with 40% of respondents saying that they prefer shopping in store, whereas 45% preferred to shop online (Drapers, 2018). Whilst online shopping is nothing new, the demand for a joined-up approach to online sites and bricks-and-mortar stores is growing. Habits such as ‘showrooming’ and ‘webrooming’ are also prevalent in Gen Z (Drapers, 2018), merging both the virtual and physical store experiences together to purchase their perfect product at the right price. In response to this, retailers are expanding their omnichannel offering, joining together bricks-and-mortar stores, online websites, outlets and social media sites. Offering convenience and supporting how – and, perhaps most importantly, when – consumers (especially immediate-living Gen Z) want to shop will become increasingly important. Retailers are also beginning to think outside of the box when it comes to the customer experience, instead considering a more holistic approach. A rise of in-store features such as coffee shops and beauty bars appearing in bricks-and-mortar stores are becoming more prominent, with retailers considering their customer’s experiential needs. For example, Retail Assist’s customer, Harvey Nichols, offer a champagne and nail bar in their Liverpool-based concept store, ‘Beauty Bazaar’, for customers who want to relax and enjoy the time they spend shopping in store. These added immersive features play to Generation…
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Is Mt Machine Learning about Retail?
  • 31 Oct

Retail Reflections Part Two: Is My Machine Learning About Retail?

Guest blog by Alan Morris. Alan is the co-founder and brand ambassador of Retail Assist. It could be argued that retailers can suffer from the Midas effect when it comes to specifying their requirements from technology; simply, they may not always know how to say what they want. Traditionally, we have written programs that tell the computer exactly what to do every step of the way. We define the input, create the calculation, and we set the criteria for the results. At no time do we allow the computer to consider the facts using its enormous capacity for performing simultaneous and complex calculations, and we never ask the computer to tell us what it thinks because computers have never been able to think for themselves. They may process millions of transactions, carry countless simultaneous calculations, and store massive volumes of data, but they don’t learn from it; only humans use data to learn and build experience so that they can make better decisions in the future. When it comes to decision support, technology has always been typecast into the support role. Technologists have been thinking about this for a long while, and ever since the reigning world chess champion at the time, Garry Kasparov, was beaten at chess by IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997, they have been working to create a computer that will mimic the human brain. Surely machine learning provides this: using algorithms, it learns from data which factors are important in achieving a specific goal. For example, if the goal is to improve the profitability of a particular product category, the system will learn which of the variables in play are important and why; it will also understand the relationships and work out what needs to happen so that the goal is achieved. Unlike traditional programming, the system will continue to learn as the variables change. This learning will continue to develop the computers thinking, expanding its experience so that it ensures the goal is met, regardless of how the business evolves. Given this explanation, you begin to appreciate that today computers can learn and gain experience and as they begin to provide better insights, we will soon be able to rely on them to manage some key processes without human intervention: this is machine learning. Machine learning is already active in retail, with websites promoting other items we’d be interested in buying, based upon our past purchases. These sites are using machine learning to analyse our browsing and buying history to personalise our shopping experience and encourage us to spend more money. In other examples, machine learning is being implemented to improve the supply chain process. Adidas is co-creating a new supply chain with its customers. They use machine learning to look at hundreds of millions of pictures to determine trends in consumer desire and then translate that into a guided design of individualised products. Adidas typically take 18 months to turn trends into shoes, but the new prototype “speed factory” sees customers design their customized…
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Is Mt Machine Learning about Retail?
  • 29 Oct

Retail Reflections Part One: Is My Machine Learning About Retail?

Guest blog by Alan Morris. Alan is the co-founder and brand ambassador of Retail Assist. Even if you don’t take an interest in machine learning, it doesn’t mean that it won’t take one in you. We are all someone’s customers, and our digital footprint is being increasingly tracked and used by retailers who want to profile us. They want to know our interests, observations, comments, likes and dislikes so they can produce for us a tailor-made customer experience. The reason being? To encourage us to spend more money: this is the future of retail.   Machine learning will be the key that unlocks retail’s big data and enables this to happen. It will provide insights so comprehensive and accurate that retailers will know exactly what their customers want to buy, and how and when they want to buy it. This will give retailers a new data driven confidence. Going forward, these insights will be automatically actioned, and the results will improve the supply chain process to a level that the buying, merchandising and logistics teams never thought possible. If you are cynical, remember that the history of innovation is the story of ideas that seemed dumb at the time. Considering how retailers currently perform data analytics will help position machine learning. Retailers use spreadsheets, planning and forecasting applications, and Business Intelligence (BI) tools, to generate insights to improve trading performance. These solutions forecast what should happen and playback what has happened. They are strong when it comes to broadcasting good, bad and indifferent performance, but they fall short of explaining why some things work and some things don’t. This insight comes from how the people that use the technology interpret the information they are presented with, and the validity of their opinion is based upon their experience and understanding of retail. The problem for humans when analysing data is the more you learn, the more you realise what you don’t know. You begin acknowledging that to understand something totally, you must sometimes break away and look at things differently; then, once you have looked at things differently, you need to look at them differently again. The best insights are those that are achieved when you completely understand the relationships between all the variables in play that can affect the scenario you are considering. Traditionally, retailers analyse data by looking for recognised patterns such as ‘what was bought with what?’, ‘which products sold best?’, and ‘how do sales compare to this time last year?’. However, they don’t fully help you to understand the different relationships that exist within the data, so they can’t fully appreciate the importance these may have when it comes to making informed decisions. This requires working through thousands of computations, testing different theories based upon how to improve performance. This arduous process is how you learn and build the experience so that the insights you give are meaningful.   Some have suggested that there is a lack of data in retail businesses. I know from personal experience that there…
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  • 28 Aug

Strawberries In January

Guest blog by Andrew Busby. Andrew Busby is a former retailer, Founder & CEO of Retail Reflections and an IBM Futurist. “We have no time for the traditional seasonal model of the fashion industry.” You’ve been invited to a black tie dinner – time to get that killer cocktail dress you’ve always been lusting after. Quick look online and it should be delivered by Saturday. Great! Except – the experience is anything but. Right colour, wrong size; right size, wrong colour… Sound familiar? Great expectations I’m sure many of us have trodden that wearisome path many times and wondered how can it be so difficult? The truth is that our expectations are now highly attuned – influenced by friends, colleagues, the media – we are impatient and less tolerant than ever before. Today’s fashion industry is under pressure like never before, faced with consumers who are used to a relentless diet of instant gratification. We don’t just expect, we demand. And it’s assuming epic proportions, especially amongst Generation Z – those born after 1995 – digital natives who have never known a world without the internet, never known a world without a smartphone in their hand. They say the pen is mightier than the sword. Well, the smartphone is the new weapon of choice for many of us; always on, always connected, always broadcasting. For Gen Z especially: search results not what was expected? Move on. No response within 2 seconds? Move on – voicing their frustration via social media as they go. It’s ruthless and it’s cutthroat. But it doesn’t end there. Strawberries In January Just as we have come to expect strawberries in January, equally we have no time for the traditional seasonal model of the fashion industry. It’s not known as fast fashion for nothing. Our insatiable thirst for newness and choice is hard to quench; the need to introduce new product at an increasingly swifter pace is overwhelming many. Whilst the prize is great – witness the likes of Asos – who are on target for £4bn turnover by 2020 – for many the daunting size of the task can appear too great. Consumer demand is driving a new retail model as brands, both online and physical, are realising the absolute need to have a consistent and unique view of the product across the entire business. Emotions Drive Behaviour However, it’s a complex dynamic which is being played out, one which involves probably the most complex thing of all: our minds. In her excellent blog post, Business & Consumer Psychologist, Zana Apostolova, describes the role of emotions in driving our behaviour. “The factors influencing purchasing behaviours are 80% emotions and 20% logic. This points to the fact that first we emotionally find reasons to buy, then we try to find reasons to validate that purchase” Zana Apostolova, Psychologist So it follows that whilst online still continues to grow – according to The Centre For Retail Research it is forecast to grow by 13.8% in 2018 –…
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  • 30 Jul

What’s Happening On Our High Streets?

Guest blog by Andrew Busby. Andrew Busby is a former retailer, Founder & CEO of Retail Reflections and an IBM Futurist. Darwinism on the High Street and why talk of a retail apocalypse is fake news Walk down virtually any High Street today and it doesn’t take too long to come across the sad sight of a once proud retail store, now shuttered and looking forlorn. These are often iconic brands, they had a place in our lives, we enjoyed going there, spending time there. And now they’re gone; probably forever. The headlines scream “retail apocalypse” and “death of the High Street” – we could actually be forgiven for believing what we read. After all, according to statistics compiled by The Local Data Company, in 2017 5,855 UK High Street stores closed, with fashion and footwear outlets being the hardest hit. Maplin Putney High Street So, the death of the High Street is real and in future we will all be shopping online; cast as mere disciples of our online masters. Not quite. Because that’s to miss a vital ingredient; here’s why. It is true that with most of us now carrying smartphones wherever we go, online has become extremely adept at making the whole process of obtaining goods and services incredibly easy. The ‘uberisation of society’ is now truly a reality; with just a few taps on our smartphone, a meal arrives or a taxi arrives or tickets to a concert turn up. Whatever we desire, the power of online brings it right to us whenever we wish. But if you’ve ever tried getting a haircut online, you’ll know that this doesn’t hold true of everything. The changing face of retail is, unlike the headlines, an incredibly complex process, with many different factors and influences impacting it in different ways. However, fundamentally, what we are experiencing – albeit extremely rapidly – is an evolution, not a revolution. Evolution, according to Charles Darwin, is the process by which species develop through a process of natural selection of the strongest. So why is it that oft quoted external influences, such as Brexit, the weather, rising costs, rent and rates etc. in other words influences which affect all retail businesses, result in some surviving whilst others do not? What we are witnessing is a natural culling of the weakest, to allow the strongest to survive and to allow growth through new entrants; more willing, more able to adapt to change. “In the long history of humankind…those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed” – Charles Darwin Online spending in the UK continues to increase, the latest figures published by the Office for National Statistics showing that in May 2018, it had reached nearly 18% of total sales, up from just over 16% in the same period a year ago. However, it would be a fallacy to conclude that this spells the end for the High Street. For example, in research co-sponsored by IBM and NRF (National Retail Federation) in…
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mobile device management
  • 25 Jun

Intelligent Supply Chains

Guest blog by Andrew Busby. Andrew Busby is a former retailer, Founder & CEO of Retail Reflections and an IBM Futurist. Omnichannel Supply Chains Ever wished you had 100% visibility of your inventory – in real time? Always wished your merchandisers were able to effectively ensure products are in the right place at the right time? Need to confidently fulfil customer demands without inflating inventory in order to maximise stock turn? Want to have fewer mark-downs by optimising stock levels to allow you to fulfil your customer demand with fewer stock outs? I’m sure the answer is yes to all of the above. Who said logistics was easy in this age of omnichannel retailing? Driven by increasing consumer demand and higher expectations, it’s in the supply chain where some of the most exciting innovations, as well as sound, solid business process improvement can be found. Increasingly defined by their final mile delivery capability, retail brands have quickly realised the fact that their supply chain is not only the beating heart of their business, but the biggest opportunity to deliver another great customer experience. Let’s take a few scenarios. World Cup Woes or Goals? It’s the World Cup, England are playing and so what does that mean? Well, apart from the now traditional disappointment and frustration, sales of beer are likely to go through the roof. But you’re prepared, you checked the England fixtures weeks ago and stocked up, job done. OK so that’s a pretty easy one; not too difficult to predict demand for certain lines in such a scenario (excepting that you forgot the Kleenex to mop up all those tears when we’re knocked out…again!)  But maybe a little trickier to predict and plan across the entire business and across the entire year. But that’s exactly what is required in this world of omnichannel retailing. The ability to not only predict demand at any time, in any scenario at any location but have the capability to move stock around proactively in order to satisfy that demand. Intelligent robots – coming soon to a warehouse near you The Humble Goldfish We’re all familiar with the humble goldfish and its attention span of just nine seconds. It used to be a source of amusement, regularly mocked. That is until now. We are living in an age not only of unprecedented change but of unprecedented social behaviour; the ‘Uberisation’ of society if you will, as personified by apps such as Tinder. Never has it been easier to meet people; after all, why bother to spend time getting to know someone when you can simply swipe right in just a couple of seconds? And it is this which is now so critical to omnichannel retailing. If you’ve got teenage children you’ll know that in reality a goldfish’s attention span far surpasses theirs at a whopping nine seconds! So if you’re marketing to millennials and especially Generation Z you need to appreciate how they operate. Bouncing between three and five screens at a time,…
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