Why more retailers should experiment more often with technology...

VMob Business Strategy Director Christopher Dawson offers his thoughts on the National Retail Federation event - live from New York…

In any busy and rapidly changing industry you need a single place, where every year you can see all the most innovative solutions in action and share ideas with experts and industry veterans.

For retailers, that place is the National Retail Federation event in New York.

As I’ve mentioned, one of the big themes this year is personalisation. When I reviewed today’s schedule I saw there was a keynote from Terry Jones, founder of Travelocity.com and founding chairman of Kayak.com.

This guy is an expert in innovation and creating successful online market places and I think that bricks and mortar retailers can learn a lot from online platforms. So I went along to listen.

I was running a little late but as it happened so were they and I managed to catch the end of IBM’s presentation.

The IBM speaker was talking about the data trail customers leave and was saying that it was just like a virtual to-do list. The opportunity for retailers is to help that customer complete there to-do list and that is a lot easier if you know what’s on it.

It’s a really interesting point and one that a lot of people here are talking about. Retailers are now moving beyond transaction history as their main source of data and are looking at real time customer data to better understand context and intent.

The message from IBM to retailers was clear. Ensure you are capturing real time data from mobile and online and using it to your advantage when your customers are out shopping. According to IBM who showed off a lot of research, if you can make it easy for them to complete their to-do list, then they will thank you for it.

Terry Jones arrived on stage after that and presented to a pretty packed audience. There were two main points from Terry’s presentation. His first point was not to be afraid of risk. The biggest risk is being left behind so keep experimenting with projects to see where you can get an advantage.

There is nothing new here but what Terry was emphasising is that while everyone knows this, not everyone does it. That, he says, is because not enough companies have a culture of innovation.

Creating the right culture could be a whole other presentation but without going into a lot of detail Terry was very firm in his assertion that it comes from the attitude of people at the top.

So all you retail leaders out there need to be open to new ideas that come from staff, suppliers, competitors or anywhere else. Travelocity were the first in the world to automatically page people if a flight was running late. That idea came from a woman in the call centre who was fed up with taking calls.

Invest small amounts in prototypes or pilot projects to test your ideas and if necessary do away with them if they don’t work. Take money from the same old activities that you keep doing everyday and use that money to pay for experiments. He said that 20% of what you see on Kayak.com at any given time is an experiment.

The other main theme of the talk centered on advanced technology. Terry told us he has been doing data analytics for years but years ago it was hard. Now with advanced technology it’s really easy.

He said that businesses had to go mobile because that was what their customers demanded. Smarter customers, he said, are now colliding with smarter technology and the data that is emerging can at last give businesses a “360 degree” view of their customers at an individual level. So don’t talk about it. Do it.

There were a few buzzwords in there (his latest venture is in the field of ‘cognitive computing’) but overall he was a very straight talker with a good sense of humor and a wealth of experience that retailers can learn from.

The message I took away from it is that more retailers should be experimenting more often with new technology.

That message might not be for everyone but then again this is NRF and it’s squarely aimed at retailers intent on finding an edge.

By Christopher Dawson - Business Strategy Director, VMob

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