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Why do retailers find it so hard to work together? Thoughts after Shoptalk

Retail demands collaboration, but there are few precedents for doing it, and therefore no models; at least not today, now that retail is no longer what it once was.

Making it up as you go along isn’t working. With the best will in the world, charismatic leaders to cheer it on and strong middle managers to enforce compliance, what we end up with is everyone copying each other and heading neck and neck towards the lowest common denominator. Or what we have chosen to call it – best practice.

Software was meant to provide the connective tissue between people and systems and enable them to be productive, efficient and engaged. In retail it hasn’t really worked because all the things that were a problem in retail before computing came along, are still a problem. Best practice just isn’t good enough.

That’s partly because retail has become so complex. What looks like a disarmingly simple profession, has become a chaos of processes that may be efficient in themselves, but disconnected from the wider supply chain; a chaos of data of such size that only AI can find the hidden value and put it to work, or so we are promised; and, a chaos of systems that again work well within their own areas of micro-optimisation but cannot deliver their value across the business.

The fault is not in our stars but in ourselves that we have allowed the size and complexity of the modern retail business to enslave us to technology and its processes.

Humans need to take back control and determine the best tools to get the job done.  However that doesn’t mean simply going down the same path as our competitors. It is clear that in some heavily technology-weighted processes, everyone is using a template and therefore getting the same results. Best practice again.

Competitive advantage, and therefore the road to a better retail future, lies in contemplating new ways to solve old problems.

Why, after two generations of automation, can we not solve basic problems? Despite being noble in reason and infinite in faculty, technology will not enable us to become better humans and we should stop believing Silicon Valley’s claims that it will. I see no evidence that automating the grunt work will liberate us all to focus on higher things.

Well, maybe some of us, but I see two dangers in believing this. Firstly, no one wants to talk about what retail with a third to a half fewer jobs will look like. And secondly, too many of the problems that beset retail are old and do not look set to be solved, even by so-called intelligent systems.

Right now, where I think this has brought us is into a dreamworld where we are thinking big but then human voices wake us and we drown; we act small. Technology is meant to be the bridge between these two worlds, but we humans must be the architects and builders.

Chris Field

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