Was 2018 the year that retail tech stood still?

It's been a year for announcements of progress in retail tech but, on the whole, are innovations really meeting expectations?
19 December 2018

A card payment terminal in fast food restaurant. Source: Shutterstock

It’s that time of year when TechHQ receives a flurry of big, bold retail technology predictions for 2019, often from people with a cool new solution to sell.

We’ll see a big jump in how retailers use analytics; They will find new and innovative ways to drive personalized customer experiences that maximize the potential of their physical stores; Blockchain technology will change everything from loyalty schemes to the supply chain. And so on.

But according to Huw Thomas, Managing Director at PMC, the key trends in 2018 haven’t really moved on since last year and he can’t see them changing much over the near-term.

Legacy systems

This year, TechHQ has brought you some significant retail success stories. Asos, for instance, saw its tech capability go from strength to strength and also posted impressive financial results. Whilst an Amazon pop-up in London blurred online and offline lines.

In 2019, more pure-plays will enter the physical fold, with reports suggesting that Amazon alone is planning 3,000 Amazon Go stores by 2021. It is also rumored to be working on the launch of flagship UK store near Oxford Circus in London.

And it is looking to bring the format to airports, although TechHQ should stress that an Amazon spokesperson told us, “we do not comment on rumors and speculation”.

There is no shortage of industry observers who will tell you that it’s more important than ever for traditional retailers to capitalize on their physical stores and digital capabilities to drive seamless omnichannel experiences that keep customers coming back. This can be done via the likes of magic mirrors in changing rooms, beacons flashing offers at customers and RFID chips in handbags.

Yet, if you head to a shopping mall today, you will see very few stores enhancing the customer experience and overall in-store journey with dazzling technology.

That’s because many retailers are juggling with the strategic thinking and implementation of digital transformation and cost transformation in parallel— a tough trick to pull off.

The sector is still challenged with realizing truly omnichannel solutions. The user journeys required are pretty obvious but bending legacy systems or implementing new technology stacks to deal with the solution is time consuming, complex and expensive.

Ones to watch

Emerging technologies that could make it beyond vendor slide shows are around the digitization of stores, enablement of better and consolidate payments and in-store mobility, Thomas says. At the backend, he expects to see more traction on improving supply chain fulfillment and last mile delivery.

There is, however, a massive delta between vendor promise and deployable solutions— at an acceptable speed and price. Thomas states that he hasn’t seen the over-commitment situation in such a poor state for over a decade.

Shiny sales slide decks suggest easy routes to a single view of everything, sophisticated order management, and product information systems, integrated digitalization, easy mobility, out of the box enterprise resource planning (ERP), etc.

Yet it all looks to be over gilding of the lily at best or just a total fabrication of reality at worst. It’s an incredibly challenging time to be a retailer and this state of affairs is just making a tough situation worse, Thomas concludes.