Retail Technology Show: driving sustainability and innovation through technology.

[RTS2023] Driving sustainability and innovation through technology.

Leading retailers and technology providers converged on London’s Olympia for the Retail Technology Show that showcased tech solutions and provided insights from industry leaders to help retailers navigate the ongoing tough retail environment. 


Among the key themes to emerge across the two days of the event, which included multiple presentation streams with senior retail executives, was the necessity to operate sustainably and to also constantly innovate. 


Sustainability has been a primary focus for fashion business Boohoo Group over recent years and Amy McNamara, head of operations at Boohoo Group, told delegates at RTS that the company’s increased focus on sustainability has involved breaking down its supply chain in order for it to better understand all the end-to-end processes. 


This has brought into ever sharper focus the area of sourcing and the company has been working on potential new avenues including vertical integration, buying more goods from suppliers nearer the UK and working with sustainable businesses.


“We’ve asked our customers what they want and they want sustainability but then there is also the cost side. We’re therefore trying to work with sustainable companies. We need to collaborate on this sustainability journey,” she says, highlighting that new suppliers and the carrier companies are among those with which it is working more closely. The latter involves a much greater sharing of data in order to push improved efficiency and better working practices.


The company works with 20 carriers and only recently has it been using the relevant data from them to help it forecast levels of returns, which helps boosts its sustainability credentials. “The big learning has been to find what data we have and analyse it. We’ve a big Business Intelligence (BI) team mainly looking at internal data. We can go bigger on collaborations with data,” she says, 


Kevin Davis, former head of logistics at Marks & Spencer, is very much an advocate of collaboration when it comes to dealing with returns and linking up with the carrier companies: “It’s a partnership and retailers need to sync with the carrier management systems. It [returns] will never be sorted until retailers engage with them.”


He suggests the complexity of returns is driven by the fact “it is one of the few areas of retail that touches all parts of the company”. “Managing the accounting and the efficiency of it is so complex. It can get pushed under the carpet. Business units own segments of the products’ journey but for returns there needs to be one owner. The more touch-points in a business then the more complex is returns,” he says.


To help retailers Davis points out that we are now seeing RMS (Returns Management Systems) coming onto the marketplace that bring the problem into a central hub, which includes integration into all the carrier companies systems. 


What was also evident at RTS was the ongoing impact of AI on the retail sector and much innovation in this area is taking place at Marks & Spencer where John Mildinhall, head of data science for retail, digital & technology at Marks & Spencer, is working on myriad projects. These include intelligent sales probes that produce as many as 250,000 forecasts for M&S stores each week. This involves looking at anomalies in the data, which has helped improve sales by 1-2%.


His department is also investigating creating content and generative imagery – including photos and videos – for M&S ranges using the AI tools. He reveals that this could potentially extend into helping the actual design of relevant products. As with all AI projects Mildinhall warns that great care has to be taken in order that customer trust is not put at risk, which could potentially undermine the hard-earned reputation of M&S.


Recognising the need to continuously innovate is Peter Cowgill, chairman of The Fragrance Shop and former CEO of JD Sports, who says: “You can’t stand still or become complacent. There have been many retailers who have failed and it’s a result of a lack of agility, flexibility and innovation. Success today is great to enjoy for a short period of time but there will be challenges [ahead].”


When at JD Sports he pushed the company to be more analytical and to better understand the target consumer as well as focusing on the speed of service to customers with queue-busting technology adopted. This involved tablets that could take payments and also help speed-up retrieval of items from the stock rooms. “It was a journey of continuous development. We never rested on our laurels and we innovated where we could,” he says.


Bringing in a mindset of innovation into an organisation can be tough. Paul Wilkinson, product leader at Deliveroo – with previous experience in innovation roles at Amazon and Tesco, has some recommendations for retailers: “You’ve got to give innovation space and carve out time for people to work on it…and you’ve got to stay close to the business and understand its problems.”


He also suggests retailers have to recognise that innovation has to be “prioritised ruthlessly” because few projects will ultimately succeed and there should be an understanding of whether an innovation will genuinely benefit the wider business.