British retailer Marks and Spencer has recently signed a deal with the Indian IT services giant Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) to help it become a 'digital first retailer', focusing on new apps, increased use of APIs, automation and even blockchain.
Speaking at the TCS Innovation Forum in London this week, Matt Horwood, group head of technology solutions at Marks and Spencer said: "M&S is a big organisation, but certainly not as big as TCS and is certainly not as big as Amazon or Google.
"So our objective and new relationship is plugging into the ecosystem and using that to expand our capabilities, not replacing our own innovation, but accelerating at scale."
Horwood spoke about the challenge of keeping up in the current "age of abundance", asking the audience: "How do we react to this? How do we innovate at a pace that allows us to compete with those that are also achieving that rapid pace of change that we strive for?
“Innovation in our products has been well-known, but our new challenge is around how we make the best of technology," he added.
Marks and Spencer announced the new partnership with TCS in January 2018 to drive its aim to become a digital-first retail business. TCS has since been assigned as M&S’ principal technology partner in order to help deliver agility, intelligence and innovation.
The company wants to focus on implementing what TCS calls 'a business 4.0 strategy', to accelerate the growth of the business.
This particularly focuses on making the business capable of delivering an ‘experience first for everyone’ mindset.
“When we talk about digital innovation, in particular, we end up talking about the customer website or the customer app and they’re extremely important areas and it’s understandable that those points will be the thing that everyone recollects as being the thing you innovated for," Horwood said.
However the retailer is also focusing on using digital to help its staff. “So we’ve worked straight away on user experience, and particularly the colleague experience and certainly what it feels like in stores. We took store managers in and they were very much part of that design process," he said.
“We also focused on automation, this machine-first concept of not actually building a replica of something that doesn’t need to be there. This is one of the first major initiatives that we built with an objective to leverage as much cloud technology as possible."
For example: “As customers come into collect products, the colleagues now have alerts automatically being sent to them rather than them having to go and check whether or not any customer's orders are coming in ready for collection," Horwell said.
The adoption of 'machine-first' is in fact one of TCS’ core strategic elements to deliver intelligent automation in the enterprise. Its machine first delivery model (MFDM) was listed as one of the key services gaining huge traction in its 2018 Q3 report.
Data and APIs
As part of this, M&S has also put a stronger focus on data and APIs to make information across the business more accessible and useful.
“This has been a real success for us. Ultimately, it led to us rolling out a solution that’s also built a platform for a series of APIs that we can leverage in the next generation of technology," Horwood said.
“We continue to develop our customer app and what we’re seeing is that the APIs that we’re building now will support both customer solutions, as well as colleague solutions," including apps for managers being deployed to specialist Honeywell devices, as well as cheaper Android devices.
This could also help the company embrace new digital channels in the future. “Whether that’s swapping handhelds for voice recognition, we’ve built the platform now and we focused on building a platform not a solution,” he said.
M&S has recently launched some innovative digital services, like a chatbot in its contact centre and the ‘Try Tuesday’ initiative: a personal styling service for customers to have clothing handpicked for them.
Now the retailer is looking to build on that success. “We’re talking with TCS and some of their startups about the opportunity that AI and the intelligent systems can derive, from automatically working out what goes with what clothing and whether or not it looks good on the customer,” Horwood said.
Horwood said that M&S will continue to work with TCS and its customers to further unlock the possibilities of automation and increased data use while it continues transforming the business.
This includes trialling 'magic mirrors' in store, "where customers could talk to a mirror and it could come up with information," Horwood said.
"Also we foresee that voice recognition is going to play a part for colleagues as well, in helping them be able to carry out their tasks without necessary having to look at a device and keeping their hands free," he added.
It was also hinted that M&S is looking into the adoption of blockchain: “As to how that will have an application in our supply chain, and being able to understand how it can be leveraged to really drive traceability across a very complex environment,” Horwood said.