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The Top 500

The Top 500

Tweaking urges arrive each January, but Ian Jindal wonders whether 2014 is more than a year

of improvement – might we need to undertake more radical structural work this year?

January is typically the time to commit to change and improvement. For multichannel professionals (for whom test-measure-optimise is a way of life) there is the business-as-usual angle to this. New Year’s resolutions are simply a modest extension of the test and optimise cycle.

The last couple of years have been focused upon consolidation and delivery of the promises of new channels and technology from previous years. Indeed, one could say that there’s nothing much ‘new’ at all happening in our industry. No whizzy developments, no radical shifts in perspective. Google Glass in stores? Yeah, fine: just like mobile, so we ‘get it’. More phablets or other devices? Bring them on – we’re responsive in our design and approach. M/e/i-Pos? Sure – we know how to train our staff. We have been focused on the ‘need to implement’, but it’s in the logical extension of scale, commerce and implementation that I see the biggest change signalled.

Hitherto, much of our multichannel development has been ‘bolt-on’, or parallel development. Ecommerce platforms initially stood alone from our core retail systems. A feed here and there; orders piped into existing systems; battles over stock reservation. While ecommerce revenues were marginal it was a nice-to-have, with limited additional investment, minimal staff and a general air of ‘easy, free revenue’.

Improved approaches have meant that tighter integrations have become the norm, but we still too often hand our customers a bag of spanners and leave them to resolve our channel challenges! Truly integrating the business capabilities requires more radical investment and approaches than a series of improved bolt-ons.

John Lewis has always focused on the customer, product selection and knowledge and had an early start in ecommerce with their acquisition in 2001 of Run as a division the growth was attractive, but a few years ago John Lewis merged the operation into the main business. While there’s still an ecommerce team focusing upon the craft of digital retailing, they can genuinely claim to have transformed all of their staff into multichannel retailers. Furthermore, early experiments with click and collect appeared to be 60% staff goodwill, 30% paper checklists and 10% systems. Learnings from these committed tests informed the later, wholesale revamping of their systems – and not just ‘web add-ons’, but their underlying business and retail systems.

Marks and Spencer also see that the future of customer-focused retail means that we cannot expect the customer to navigate our silos and must instead ruthlessly ‘bend’ our operations to wrap around the customer, while engaging the capabilities of the whole business.

Their multichannel framework programme – reputed to be the largest systems project in the retail world at present – will update major systems (from warehousing to web, order management to in-store) and draw all of their staff into the multichannel retail mindset.

These changes are more than ‘bolt on’ or new channels: they reflect a root-and-branch commitment to renewing the way we envision, deliver and support modern retail. This represents the most significant change to retail operations in more than a generation, and this is why we’re terming it a ‘re-foundation’. Rebuilding complex enterprises is no trivial matter, and to borrow Neurath’s analogy, we are ‘like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start again from the bottom’. In 2014, more and more of the leading retailers will be attempting this challenge of maintaining growth and customer experience at scale, while also restructuring, reinvesting and renewing. Performing open heart surgery on oneself while running a marathon.

We will be taking this ‘refoundationing’ (with all of its implications on people, process and technology) as our theme of the year, culminating in our ninth Annual Conference in October.

Multichannel professionals, while lacking a flashy New Thing (promising cake tomorrow), have the excitement of working cross-functionally with committed colleagues to deliver evermorecompletely our brands’ proposition to customers at scale and at profit. Never more involved at the heart of retail, this is a rewarding and stimulating time in which to be in our wonderful industry, and we wish every continued success to all of our readers through 2014.

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