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6 key tech trends driving retail CIOs in 2012

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As technology evolves and becomes more complex, so do the demands on retail CIOs. From integrating channels to leveraging big data collection, next week in Carlsbad, California, retail CIOs will gather at NRFtech: the IT Leadership Summit to discuss these growing technology challenges and how to bring it all together.

Ian Rawlins, VP of Product Marketing, Epicor[/caption]

We asked to Ian Rawlins, VP of Product Marketing at Epicor, which provides software solutions for Build-A-Bear Workshop, Carter's and Tumi, to share some insights and observations about the hot topics in retail IT, the importance of anytime, anywhere transactions, and why retailers' understanding of customer centricity needs to go deeper.

At NRFtech, leading retail CIOs will gather to discuss the latest trends and top-of-mind issues in the industry. What do you think are the biggest challenges CIOs face today?

We're seeing CIOs focus on six key areas that are impacting retail in a very significant way -- cross-channel, mobile, global, customer intimacy, data analytics and cloud.

The goal of all retailers is to be able to inspire customers and thus, establish meaningful long-term and mutually beneficial relationships with them. How CIOs prioritize and address the key drivers with a relatively static IT budget and often large and inflexible legacy platform is a significant challenge.

The term "customer centricity" is somewhat of a retail buzzword. What does it mean for retailers from a CIO's perspective?

Initially customer-centric retailing was about establishing closer relationships with customers to be able to provide more tailored products and services. In other words, the return to one-to-one retailing after an era of focusing on physical retail expansion, distribution efficiencies and building economies of scale. Today, the key to customer centricity is understanding that customers want to be in control of and actively participate in the entire buying process.

This requires CIOs to enable the two key aspects of this consumer control: 1.) the availability and accessibility to all kinds of information (e.g. product data, product reviews, inventory levels, pricing, transaction history, loyalty point totals, special offers); and, 2.) the ability to transact anytime from anywhere (e.g. traditional POS, mobile POS, self check-out, kiosks, e-commerce, phone orders, mobile commerce).

Which retailers do you think are taking customer centricity to the next level in this way?

Those who are putting technologies in place that address integrated information/transaction capabilities are taking the lead. In order to deliver on the vision, you need a comprehensive, real-time integrated set of processes that span across the full value chain, including front-end transaction systems such as POS and mobile POS, cross-channel order fulfillment, loyalty/CRM, and inventory and warehouse management.

Companies like American Eagle, Build-a-Bear Workshop, Carter's, FootLocker, and Tumi are all great examples of retailers on the path to taking full advantage of those solutions and delivering great experience for their customers.

What tips do you have for retailers for ensuring their customer experience is seamless across all channels?

It starts with a deep understanding of all the potential paths a customer may take in the buying process. To find and close the gaps, you need to map those paths and identify the information and transaction capabilities that are required at each step.

It is not seamless when an order placed in one transaction system is not accessible from every other transaction system. It is not seamless when prices for products presented to customers are not consistent across channels. It is not seamless when access to real-time inventory availability data is not available across channels. These are just some of many examples where some retailers don't measure up to customer expectations today.

Mobile has opened up a lot of possibilities for retailers over the past few years. What's the key to merging in-store and mobile operations successfully?

We believe strongly that the best approach is to implement a single application platform that can leverage both traditional and mobile devices. Many retailers, in the rush to implement mobile capabilities, have gone down the path of building entirely new mobile transaction systems, whether they are POS or inventory-oriented applications. While meeting a short-term objective, the longer-term challenges associated with managing, modifying and migrating multiple systems can be very painful.

It's also a mistake to just "wait and see" on mobile and not make any investment. Things are happening so quickly that just getting on the path towards a comprehensive mobile strategy is important.

How do you think retail technology will have advanced five years from now?

I believe the application of cloud technologies in retail will be very significant in five years. Retail, with a highly distributed environment, with hundreds and sometimes thousands of physical locations, thousands of distributed associates and often millions of consumers all needing access to up-to-date and integrated information and transaction systems is the perfect environment to leverage a cloud infrastructure.

What's your favorite thing about working in retail technology?

I've been involved in retail technology now for over 25 years and the pace of dramatic change in the industry has only continued to increase over time. It keeps things new, exciting, complex and challenging all at the same time.