Technology impact in Retail

The other important aspect of retailing relates to technology. It is widely felt that the key differentiator between the successful and not so successful retailers is primarily in the area of technology. Simultaneously, it will be technology that will help the organised retailer score over the unorganised players, giving both cost and service advantages.

Retailing is a `technology-intensive' industry. It is quoted that everyday at least 500 gigabytes of data are transmitted via satellite from the 1,200 point-of-sales counters of JC Penney to its corporate headquarters. Successful retailers today work closely with their vendors to predict consumer demand, shorten lead times, reduce inventory holding and thereby, save cost. Wal-Mart pioneered the concept of building a competitive advantage through distribution and information systems in the retailing industry. They introduced two innovative logistics techniques - cross-docking and electronic data interchange.

Today, online systems link point-of-sales terminals to the main office where detailed analyses on sales by item, classification, stores or vendor are carried out online. Besides vendors, the focus of the retailing sector is to develop the link with the consumer. `Data Warehousing' is an established concept in the advanced nations. With the help of `database retailing', information on existing and potential customers is tracked. Besides knowing what was purchased and by whom, information on softer issues such as demographics and psychographics is captured.

Retailing, as discussed before, is at a nascent stage in our country. Most organised players have managed to put the front ends in place, but these are relatively easy to copy. The relatively complicated information systems and underlying technologies are in the process of being established. Most grocery retailers such as FoodWorld have started tracking consumer purchases through CRM. The lifestyle retailers through their `affinity clubs' and `reward clubs' are establishing their processes. The traditional retailers will always continue to exist but organised retailers are working towards revamping their business to obtain strategic advantages at various levels - market, cost, knowledge and customer.

With differentiating strategies - value for money, shopping experience, variety, quality, discounts and advanced systems and technology in the back-end, change in the equilibrium with manufacturers and a thorough understanding of the consumer behaviour, the ground is all set for the organised retailers. The bottomline could look brighter, after all!

It would be important to note, however, that the retailing industry in India is still a `protected industry'. It is one of the few sectors which still has restrictions on FDI. Given the current trend in liberalisation, it will not be long before the retailing sector is also thrown open to international competition. This will see a further segregation of the international retailing brands and the domestic retailers, thereby injecting much greater dynamism into the market. That will be when the real action will begin. In the second article on retailing, we uncover a model for retailers to handle the emerging scenario.

- Contributed by Nithin Narayanan