I tend to divide technology companies into two groups. There are those who’ve come up with a shiny new whizzy thing and who then start looking around for problems that it might be able to solve. And then there are those whose starting point is a problem and who then develop a piece of technology to solve it. I’ve worked with both. It’s overwhelmingly the latter that succeed.

On Monday I spent the day at RBTE, the Retail Business Technology Expo, and there was a wide selection from both camps on display.

There were plenty of incumbents showing their faces. I was surprised not to see more in RELEX’s field – retail planning and demand forecasting – an area which, historically, has been problem driven and where savings typically vastly outweigh costs. There was no shortage of companies exhibiting better/cheaper/newer/weirder ‘mousetraps’ in various flavors – display technology, workforce management, customer engagement, EPOS, scanning, and so forth. And there were numerous stalls where I found myself wondering what the compelling USP was supposed to be.

The most interesting exhibitors were often to be found in small stalls on the show’s periphery. A lot of the innovation is happening in startups and growing companies. Some of them, no doubt, are clever ideas in search of a purpose. But others resonate.

One small company was bringing together geographical and demographic data to help retailers decide where to open new stores. It’s the flipside of some of what RELEX does in the space and assortment field analyzing the same sort of data and using it to group together stores in a chain by customer profile so that assortment, product launches and merchandising that works in one location with a particular demographic can be used elsewhere.

Another interesting outfit was doing fascinating work in mining social media for data. It’s image recognition technology allowed it to spot brand logos or even products and analyze the content in which they were being used.

I can imagine, in two or three years’ time, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others may be mined for information that will provide exceptionally valuable trend data that will further refine demand forecasting. That could be hugely useful in fashion or even grocery, where you might see a correlation between a TV cookery show, social media mentions of particular recipes or ingredients and sales over the days that follow.

Customer experience is king

One of my most enjoyable conversations was with Antony Ribot co-founder of the company that bears his name. The company spends a lot of its time thinking about user experience; that can be through apps or within apps.

Ribot’s stand featured a display with several shelves stacked with wine. LED lights ran along each shelf edge. Open up one of the apps the company is developing and it asks you what you’re planning for dinner – meat, fish, vegetables, cheese etc. It’ll then offer you a selection from the stock on the shelves and, this was fun, the LEDs light up below each wine in that selection. Pick one on-screen and that bottle is highlighted on the shelf display.

So far, so gimmicky, yes? But that’s not the end of this journey for Ribot. It’s all about how you make the experience even more frictionless. It’s less about the product than the final destination – to use technology to make life easy and pleasant and to do it in such a way as the technology itself becomes part of the wallpaper. Whether or not the LED-lit wine selector takes off smart companies these days are trying to follow the same path – to deliver real benefits for minimal hassle.

In contrast I also visited a tech company focusing on robotics. The customer service robot developed by them reminded me of the rather irritating machines featured in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Not something I personally would appreciate, however, I’m sure plenty of people will love them. A lot of good technology is about letting machines do the stuff that machines do best in order to make time for the personal touch that really makes a difference to our lives whether in supplier negotiations or customer service. Service robots strike me as a fundamental misunderstanding of what we’re starting to miss when we’re overwhelmed by technology – the human dimension.

The whole experience at RBTE reminds me of a fundamental rule of thumb. Technology that is unhelpful and that gets in the way; bad. Technology that helps without being noticed; good. Which leads me back to RELEX. Your customers need never be aware that you’re using good supply chain technology because it’s all about ensuring they never need to ask themselves why you can’t get something that matters to them right. And that’s because it’s all about solving real problems so they never become your customers’ problems and leaving your people with far more time to interact with your customers as… gasps of amazement… people! What’s not to like?

Mikko Kärkkäinen

Jonathan Kent

Jonathan Kent is a writer, journalist and broadcaster. He is a former foreign correspondent and a regular commentator in the media for outlets including the BBC and The Guardian, he has been working with RELEX since 2011.

Subscribe to receive monthly blog updates

Stay on top of the latest trends in supply chain

Subscribe to receive monthly blog updates.