Customer Focus

IRC 2015 INTERVIEW Ian Jindal of InternetRetailing, on how ecommerce has changed over the 10 years of the conference

Ahead of this year’s InternetRetailing Conference (IRC 2015) we’re running a series of previews of the event, both looking at the conference streams, workshops and exhibitions, and interviewing key speakers at the event. This week we talk to Ian Jindal, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Internet Retailing, about the event.

Internet Retailing: This year’s IRC is the 10th. How did the first one come about?

Ian JindalIan Jindal, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Internet Retailing: My business partner, Mark Pigou, had been monitoring the tremendous disruption of the web in areas as disparate as publishing, entertainment, advertising and stores (via one of his earlier shows, Screen Media) and realised that the web’s early ripples into retailing would have far more profound and long-term consequences. Seeing these more as opportunities than threats, Mark created InternetRetailing Conference in 2005 as a forum to examine the emerging trends and opportunities in ecommerce and after an incredible decade we can reflect upon ecommerce’s integration into multichannel retail. The conference was conceived as a way for industry pioneers and leaders to meet. Its aim was to supplement news, analysis and research with the vital face-to-face inspiration and networking that’s so important in our open, people-centred young industry.

IR: You’ve seen a lot of changes in ecommerce and multichannel retailing since 2005 – in your view, what have been the most significant one or two developments – and why?

IJ: The major change has been the move from ecommerce as a ‘stand-alone’ activity to a broader-based perspective of multichannel retail. The assimilation is not fully complete, but we can see the digital influence at every level of the retail organisation. This is effecting a continuing culture change within retail and the impact of these first years will be felt beneficially for decades to come.

The other main change is the switch from an operations- and process-centred industry to a customer-centred one. At the end of the last century UK retail was highly-optimised, with supply-chain and operational capabilities that were rightly the envy of the world. The growing level of customer insight, customer knowledge and choice has forced us to ‘flex’ some rigid orthodoxies and ‘un-learn’ some areas of expertise in order to reassemble new capabilities. It’s been a real privilege to see both new businesses race into the market (Amazon, Asos) and see major retailers re-foundation their operations while maintaining leadership positions (M&S, Tesco, Shop Direct to name but a few).

Both of these changes resonate at Board Level and the conversation there for the coming decade will focus upon organisational agility and flexibility, maintaining capability and connecting with the digital customer. It’s an exciting time to be in retail!

IR: What’s the ecommerce innovation of the last decade that you most use(d)?

IJ: As an early, foolish and spendthrift adopter of mobile technology I have a collection of Apple Newtons, Palm Pilots, early ‘smart’ phones, all characterised by the fact they didn’t really deliver on the space-age promise. The real change in the last decade has been the availability of data networks allied to tarifs that make accessing data so easy and cheap that it becomes invisible. The ‘everything-everywhere’ change has been gradual, near-invisible but now total in the way it’s changed my approach to information, communication and retail. From around 2005 every year was hailed as ‘the year of mobile’ and we laughed at the hype. Looking back, however, perhaps it’s true that every year for a decade has been the year of mobile – we just underestimated the quiet march of data access even as we were disappointed by the gap between the hype at the marketing end.

IR: What are your one or two big predictions for the development of the industry over the next ten years?

IJ: Skills and People. Together. The growth of multichannel now requires a fully-skilled head office team, working together across silos in a digitally-savvy way. This has been agreed for years, but while ecommerce represented 10% of one’s business we could leave the ‘digital team’ in a corner and just count the growth. With ecommerce affecting over 50% of revenues in a multichannel business we can no longer have outposts of analogue activity. The pain of this transition is widely underestimated, and reflects a generational change in what it means to ‘be at work’, to have a job, to build a career in retail.

The parallel revolution is to support and develop our front-line staff since they are the sharp interface between the customer (and her all-knowing capabilities) and the complexities of our retail businesses. Our frontline staff need to combine order management, stock knowledge, operational capabilities, trends advice, care and ingredients – all within an effortless service wrapper. Without investment and support our most important assets could underperform or move to our more forward-looking competitors.

IR: What future innovation are you most impatiently expecting to become a reality?

IJ: One innovation is here and that’s voice control of mobiles. I’m looking forward to this developing steadily and consistently. It’s currently useful in a quiet environment, but as the technology improves I am really looking forward to being able to talk to the internet, as it were, and have always-on access to information and capability (and yes, you can tease me about my hopes for handwriting recognition back in 1995 and my Apple Newton!) My hope is that this will introduce a further step in ‘conversational commerce’, where my interest in brands and products can span research, awareness, narrowing options, ordering, customer support and social media, all without touching a keyboard.

The other innovation is bringing more of the product knowledge to the point of use. We’re already seeing barcode scanners in mobiles being able to show extended information and care instructions, for example, but I’d like to see this extending to more products and not only in the store. Guitars than can remind you of how to practice your scales; an old mixer in the kitchen that still knows how to remove the peculiar blade; and the carton of soya milk that can tell you the calories when added to a smoothie… All of these points of information exist now, but require a lot of linking and different tools and interfaces to combine. I would like to see the ‘internet of things’ meet ‘big data’ on the way to the ‘internet of everything’ and have this at the disposal of retailers and customers in a transparent way.

Is this a pipe dream? I think not. Being privileged to have seen the agenda for the conference I’d invite you to look for the seeds of this future in many of the presentations we’ll see. Despite our progress over the last decade I think that there’s even more change and excitement to come.

IR: What are you most looking forward to at this year’s IRC?

IJ: The keynote session is always inspiring and this year’s trio have a heady combination of seniority in major retailers and digital-analog-global experience. I’m really excited about these sessions. Thereafter I admit to being in an ‘order management and operations’ mood this year so that’s going to be my main theatre, although the ‘pull’ of the wonderful retail speakers in the Customer stream is going to be difficult to resist – John Lewis, Fortnums, Jigsaw, New Look. In the Product stream we’ve a real trove, including a great session from House of Fraser (whose recent video on our site on their mobile activities has been one of our most popular ever).

Over and above the conference streams I just love meeting delegates and exhibitors: there’s a real feeling of ‘meeting the industry’ and hearing what’s going on, their priorities and interests really sustains our energy and informs our coverage for the year.

Ian Jindal will be chairing the keynote session at IRC 2015, which will be held on October 14 at the Novotel, Hammersmith, London. To find out more or to register visit www.internetretailingconference.com.

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