Toys R Us and Maplin reaction: Can digital savvy make British retailers future-proof?
Wednesday was a bleak day for the UK retail sector as Toys R Us and Maplin, two of its most recognisable brands, faced up to the reality of administration.
3,000 jobs are at risk at Toys R Us UK, which operates over 100 out-of-town stores across the country, while Maplin, specialists in electronic goods, has blamed the drop in the value of sterling for its cession to administrators PwC.
Firms will continue to succeed and fail in a notoriously unpredictable industry, but these back-to-back revelations regarding two long-established traders will have retail leaders once again pondering the question: how can I make my business future-proof?
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One pertinent subject is e-commerce and the digitisation of operations. Pat Lynes, business transformation expert and founder of Sullivan & Stanley, believes traditional retailers often fall behind in satisfying customers' demands online.
"They haven’t re-engineered their operating model to focus on digital platforms and the customer experience," he says. "A lot of executives of these older corporations are sitting within organisational structures that were fit for the nineties and maybe the noughties, but aren’t fit for today’s rapid-pace, changing world. Without the ability to adapt quickly, sales will slide.
"It’s the same Blockbuster story repeating - how many others will be next? Businesses need to address the capability and speed gap and look ahead, working with the best people to solve their challenges."
While Toys R Us and Maplin each has a functioning e-commerce platform, it is likely that neither company has invested what is considered enough capital and expertise to make it a core function of their operations.
A recent study by e-commerce agency Visualsoft revealed this to be a big problem in the sector, with retailers falling short in areas such as page speed, payment options and general onsite experience. For example, 17% of e-retailers surveyed failed to optimise on-site search options to help drive sales.
"We found that worryingly large numbers are putting profits at risk by not following basic online principles," said David Duke, Visualsoft's Chief Marketing Officer.
"Rapid page load speeds, providing a range of payment and delivery options and maximising the social media opportunity are just some of the key considerations for online retailers in the 21st century. Essentially, if they can get the basics right, the rest will follow."
Other factors will have certainly hurt Toys R Us and Maplin, such as uncertainty over Brexit and falling levels of consumer spending. The adoption of technology, however, and the forming of a workforce skilled enough to utilise it remains one of the most relevant discussion points as the sector plots its roadmap for the future.
SAS: Improving the British Army’s decision making with data
SAS’ long-standing relationship with the British Army is built on mutual respect and grounded by a reciprocal understanding of each others’ capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Roderick Crawford, VP and Country GM for SAS UKI, states that the company’s thorough grasp of the defence sector makes it an ideal partner for the Army as it undergoes its own digital transformation.
“Major General Jon Cole told us that he wanted to enable better, faster decision-making in order to improve operational efficiency,” he explains. Therefore, SAS’ task was to help the British Army realise the “significant potential” of data through the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to automate tasks and conduct complex analysis.
In 2020, the Army invested in the SAS ‘Viya platform’ as an overture to embarking on its new digital roadmap. The goal was to deliver a new way of working that enabled agility, flexibility, faster deployment, and reduced risk and cost: “SAS put a commercial framework in place to free the Army of limits in terms of their access to our tech capabilities.”
Doing so was important not just in terms of facilitating faster innovation but also, in Crawford’s words, to “connect the unconnected.” This means structuring data in a simultaneously secure and accessible manner for all skill levels, from analysts to data engineers and military commanders. The result is that analytics and decision-making that drives innovation and increases collaboration.
Crawford also highlights the importance of the SAS platform’s open nature, “General Cole was very clear that the Army wanted a way to work with other data and analytics tools such as Python. We allow them to do that, but with improved governance and faster delivery capabilities.”
SAS realises that collaboration is at the heart of a strong partnership and has been closely developing a long-term roadmap with the Army. “Although we're separate organisations, we come together to work effectively as one,” says Crawford. “Companies usually find it very easy to partner with SAS because we're a very open, honest, and people-based business by nature.”
With digital technology itself changing with great regularity, it’s safe to imagine that SAS’ own relationship with the Army will become even closer and more diverse. As SAS assists it in enhancing its operational readiness and providing its commanders with a secure view of key data points, Crawford is certain that the company will have a continually valuable role to play.
“As warfare moves into what we might call ‘the grey-zone’, the need to understand, decide, and act on complex information streams and diverse sources has never been more important. AI, computer vision and natural language processing are technologies that we hope to exploit over the next three to five years in conjunction with the Army.”
Fundamentally, data analytics is a tool for gaining valuable insights and expediting the delivery of outcomes. The goal of the two parties’ partnership, concludes Crawford, will be to reach the point where both access to data and decision-making can be performed qualitatively and in real-time.
“SAS is absolutely delighted to have this relationship with the British Army, and across the MOD. It’s a great privilege to be part of the armed forces covenant.”