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GUEST COMMENT Brand identity: don’t forget the IT

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Developing a brand identity for a retailer has historically been seen as a marketing role. Marketing creates brand values, a name, logo and a style guide. But today, a brand is so much more. It’s about customer experience — and for modern consumers that’s increasingly driven by technology.

Retail technology innovation has accelerated in recent years across all shopping channels. In physical stores, Wi-Fi and then mobile point of sales have heralded a new wave of technologies that now includes wearables, interactive digital displays and facial recognition. These innovations have the potential to open up new ways in which to enrich customer experiences, and in turn, new battlegrounds where retailers will fight to differentiate their brands.

But retailers should be aware that in the battle for the capricious customer, they’re setting themselves up for disappointment if they commit to innovation and investment without considering their infrastructure. Digitally empowered customers now expect the same high level of service and brand experience regardless of how and when they choose to shop.

In our recent research, The Autonomous Customer 2015, we found that customers expect to receive an answer within 15 minutes to a query posted to a retailer’s social media site. What’s more, retail research and advisory firm IHL Group reported that over a quarter of retailers (28%) claim that they have experienced a positive impact on customer loyalty as a result of offering in-store WiFi, and an associated 2.0% increase in sales.

But there can be no hiccups. Any glitches, delays or interruptions shoppers experience when using these technologies impacts heavily on brand identity, reputation and most importantly, loyalty. According to a survey by retail customer experience firm SDL, once a customer suffers what they consider to be a major service failure, 64% will stop recommending the organisation, start looking for an alternative brand or actively disparage the company via word of mouth, social media or other online channels. That’s why retailers need to prioritise improving their infrastructure backbone, before attempting to dazzle customers with front-end technology.

According to recent research conducted by analyst Ovum on BT’s behalf, the vast majority of retailers (67% of survey respondents) continue to rely on in-house, on-premise applications and infrastructure to support their digital initiatives, with no plans to move to outsourced or cloud-based platforms, software and services in the next 12-18 months. Even though staying with these legacy systems presents risks in terms of lack of agility, poor flexibility and potential incompatibility with the latest technologies, many retailers seem unwilling to do away with their aging equipment.

The legacy challenge

Legacy IT systems need frequent updates, patches and fixes. As they age, reliability, security and compatibility become big issues too. Indeed, over 80% of respondents in the BT-Ovum research indicated that a majority of their IT budget and time is spent in maintaining and updating these systems leaving little resources for actually transforming their business for the digital age. It found that a meagre 5% of retailers in the UK, currently use cloud-based delivery models, hampering their ability to respond quickly to market movements. All of this means that retailers risk failing in the face of customer expectations.

Yet there are some retailers, such as Dixons Carphone, that have achieved real business transformation. It boosted its in-store shopping experience by creating a digital workforce, supported by an investment in network infrastructure. The company’s new BT-managed IT network supports every part of the business, enabling the retailer to stay ahead of the ever-evolving needs of its stores, offices, data centres, contact centres and supply chain operations.

Central to this, has been Dixons Carphone’s deployment of an applications performance management technology in its network. This technology ensures that Pin Point, a mobile device used by colleagues in store to take customers through the sales process, gets priority over all other applications using the network. This creates a great experience for colleagues using the device, giving them timely and reliable access to the information they need and helps them better serve customers.

With customers now so fickle, it’s important that both in-store and online technology is underpinned with a single, scalable, secure and reliable IT infrastructure, comprising both the corporate IT network and access to data centres. This allows retailers to manage access to the data and applications underpinning their operations and create cloud-based platforms that give their business scalability and flexibility.

When considering their approach to cloud, retailers need to be mindful of the need to share data across their business in a secure and reliable manner. An uncoordinated approach to the adoption and use of cloud-based applications and data can create big problems for the retailer to manage. These include cyber security as well as the frustration of colleagues who can’t share data between one cloud-hosted back-office system and another. To solve this problem, retailers should consider accessing all their cloud-based systems, wherever they are hosted, via a single IT infrastructure – a Cloud of Clouds.

Securing your brand

With technology now an integral part of the shopping experience, it’s little wonder that one of the greatest threats to a retailer’s brand is a cyber attack.

Unfortunately, cyber attacks are now a fact of business life. More than one in three enterprises suffered a DDoS (distributed denial of service) attack between 2013 and 2014. And 80% of the time, they were attacked more than once. Retailers, with their high-value brands, extensive customer relationship management databases, payments information and seasonal business cycles, are prime targets for hackers.

To help manage risk, retailers should consider using enterprise-grade clouds, rather than cheaper cloud services primarily designed for consumers. Enterprise-grade clouds are inherently secure. Retailers should also consider using a single cloud integrator to help them choose which services to use and how to protect them. This, combined with a Cloud of Cloud approach to their IT infrastructure, will help them ensure that there are no gaps in their cyber defences.

So regardless of how customers are shopping with them, it’s clear that retailers’ future brand success will increasingly depend on service quality and the technology upon which it’s built. Behind every great retail brand should be a great network.

Ashish Gupta is president, UK corporate and global banking & financial markets, at BT Global Services.

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