Big challenges for retail tech decision makers
Pity the poor retail CIO. There's pressure to support new mobile strategies while also thwarting showrooming. They're asked to personalize the customer experience, but watch out for those privacy pitfalls. They have to get agile, perhaps by moving into the cloud, but then the latest data-breach headline puts their security strategy under a microscope.
The National Retail Federation's Big Show, Jan. 12-15, in New York, puts a spotlight on the often contradictory technology priorities and trends facing the modern retailer. The biggest push continues to be the quest for what Allan Smith, CIO of clothing maker and retailer Lululemon, calls the "single customer experience." This is the latest name for the 10-plus-year-old quest to bring order and consistency to a retail experience that spans physical stores, web stores, call centers, email campaigns, social sites, and mobile applications.
CIOs know well that technology is a big part of the silo problem, as point-of-sale (POS) systems, e-commerce platforms, and order-management applications have served up their unsynchronized, disparate versions of the truth. Integration and sophisticated strategies around cross-channel fulfillment, replenishment, and allocation have helped matters, but technology providers such as SAP's Hybris e-commerce unit were on hand at the Big Show with the latest promise of a single platform that can manage all retail transactions.
It's hard keeping up with the pace of change, and consumer expectations for mobile and social shopping experiences are just the latest examples of the need for agility. Of course, technology vendors ranging from IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, and SAS to eBay, Google, NetSuite, and Verizon were on hand promising rapidly deployable, cloud-based computing capacity and application services. But CIOs like Michael Kingston of Neiman Marcus know all too well that internal process changes and organizational structures are the biggest obstacles to being a responsive retailer.
With mobile, social, and web channels now fueling the growth of big data, there's clearly an imperative to make use of all available information. Kingston of Neiman Marcus (and his counterpart Beth Jacob of Target) also knows all too well that data is a risk, as underscored by the recent Neiman Marcus and Target data breaches. But there weren't too many answers for data breaches discussed, and many of the "security" technologies on display were focused on protecting retailers from theft.
Retailers will take a hybrid approach to the cloud, predicts IBM chairman, president, and CEO Ginni Rometty, with "private" being a key option for sensitive data. A Big Show keynote speaker, Rometty also expects some retailers to follow the lead of banks in appointing chief data officers. As for that other C-suite competitor, the CMO, get used to working shoulder-to-shoulder with him or her, as the challenges ahead for retailers will demand a team approach to meeting customer expectations.