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Retail Reflections: Online UK retailers see bigger picture; jobs for robots or people?

Alan Monahan writes: Not for the first time we’re being told that savvy retailers understand that success ultimately lies in their ability to gather, analyse and act on data about their customers’ preferences.

But while those online in the UK are keenly interested in data, there is a looming barrier: nearly half have reported that they lack the talent and tools to analyse it. When asked, only 54% rated themselves as very effective at leveraging data for business decisions – well below the 63% of all others surveyed.

The cost and complexity of data analysis tools was also a major concern for British online retailers, revealed by Oracle + Bronto, which teamed with research firm Demand ROI to find out what they thought was critical and how that compared with their peers in the US, Canada and Australia. Although the results sounded a few alarm bells, the good news is that our retailers are looking at the bigger picture.

That shouldn’t really surprise us, given that the UK has never been shy about innovating in the ecommerce space. Whether timing emails for the morning commute or experimenting with click-and-collect, Brits embrace change and often lead the world in adopting new techniques to meet the needs of today’s shoppers.

The poll – featuring 77% of retailers who were online and also had bricks-and-mortar stores, and 23% who were online only – revealed that despite an admitted lack of expertise by some, the British are thirsty to use data and analytics to get to know their customers and improve their operations.

Nearly a third of UK respondents are also making a big push for customer loyalty and retention (higher than in other countries surveyed), which was named as their top investment goal.

Some 62% listed emails as one of the three most successful marketing channels, and their number one choice, with only 51% selecting social media, which is notoriously difficult to measure. The survey concludes that if UK retailers are hesitant to invest in social media before they better understand channel attribution, it’s probably a wise move!

The mobile experience is one of the top two strategic initiatives for British ecommerce retailers and it came third in terms of having the potential to improve sales or profit.

Those with a solid bricks-and-mortar network want to take advantage of it to erase some of the pains of online shopping, such as needing to get something that day or wanting an easy way to make returns. Thirty-eight per cent of UK respondents agreed that a coordinated in-store and ecommerce strategy has a high potential to improve sales and profits, which is probably related to the success of their efforts with strategies such as click-and-collect.

But when it comes to techniques to enhance the in-store experience, they differ from their counterparts in some areas. Twenty-seven per cent of UK respondents believe interactive spaces – such as virtual kiosks – could greatly impact store sales, while just 21% of others who took part think they’re game changers.

Conversely, UK retailers aren’t particularly enthusiastic about making personalised in-store offers on mobile devices (14%), which were identified by 25% of all other respondents as a great way to enhance the in-store experience.

It’s probably no surprise in the age of Brexit that UK retailers list economic conditions as their top concern when it comes to external market conditions and things outside of their control. Also weighing on them are consumer concerns about privacy.

And, interestingly, when asked – when they thought about innovation in ecommerce – where they would focus if money or time were not an issue, 49% of British retailers polled chose new payment options, including ‘one-click’ choices that make shopping seamless.

So, online, the UK is apparently moving in the right direction – concerned about mobile, interested in customer loyalty, serious about channel attribution, and knowledgeable about the need for data to drive revenue. The retailers that get these pieces into play quickly and effectively will have the advantage going forward.

Fujitsu’s Technology in a Transforming Britain report makes for fascinating reading. When it questioned 2,145 consumers about their weekly shop it discovered that opinion was split. Some 37% would happily be served by a robot in a supermarket, but 35% wouldn’t.

Business leaders – 647 of them, including retailers – were also quizzed about technology. And while 20% plan to implement drones within the next year, two-thirds have no intention of doing so. Fujitsu observes that this may well increase quickly should UK airspace laws be relaxed – which is unlikely to be any time soon.

And 57% of leaders have no plans to implement VR (virtual reality) in the coming year. The report says that ‘clearly businesses aren’t yet sold on its ability to provide a worthy return’, although the technology is expected to be more widely adopted in future. So, while the online retail revolution is seemingly unstoppable, change doesn’t appear to be as rapid in bricks-and-mortar stores.

The British Retail Consortium has said that 900,000 jobs in retailing could be lost by 2025. So I’ll happily queue at the check-out with my weekly shop and pass the time of day with the person on the till. Hopefully, that will help to keep them in work, at least for the moment.

Being served by a robot just doesn’t appeal to me.