Waitrose: Customer choice is vital to IoT innovation
Waitrose: Customer choice is vital to IoT innovation

Waitrose: Customer choice is key to IoT innovation

Waitrose’s head of IT planning and engagement Tom Fuller believes that retail technology is changing, but stresses that IoT is only just getting started.

Founded in 1904, Waitrose has gone on to become one of the most respected retailers in the UK, offering grocery goods and other high-end food items.

However, in more recent years, Britain’s largest employee-owned retailer has become a technology innovator, leveraging the latest technologies to better serve customers and improve its own business operations.

Like its partner John Lewis (both are part of the John Lewis Partnership), it has made a seamless transition from a traditional bricks-and-mortar store to a digital leader operating at the cutting-edge.

Earlier this week, Waitrose’s head of IT planning and engagement Tom Fuller gave an enlightening overview of the firm’s approach to digital innovation, including how it selects what technologies are appropriate for customers, whilst ensuring that this fits in with the ‘Waitrose experience’.

Speaking at the Internet of Retail, Fuller said that Waitrose customers increasingly want to “connect with us in an increasingly connected world”.

“I think we’re seeing a seismic shift now. Technology is really changing how customers shop,” he said, before adding that customers are enthused by a better experience, not necessarily by better technology.

“It’s really important to make it clear that technology is not the star of the show. If you go back to innovation, it was actually about renewal – making yourself relevant. I always like to think ‘renew’ rather than ‘new’ [when thinking about innovation].”

“We just ask ourselves ‘how can we make ourselves more Waitrose’ and ‘how can the customer get more value?’.”

Interestingly, Fuller added that “technology is getting quite easy to predict”, even withstanding Moore’s Law. However, he said that finding out how customers react to these technologies is an altogether bigger challenge.

“I think the really hard bit is [understanding] customer behaviour.”

iPads, scanners and IoT

Waitrose has deployed a number of technologies, new and old, in recent months, from rolling out 4,500 iPads at the front of stores for a ‘digital concierge service’, through to the use of location-based services, mobile payments and the Internet of Things (IoT).

That said, Waitrose isn’t always fussed by the hottest new technology. Fuller says that in-store scanning, a technology that has been around since 1997, is something that “customers really absolutely love”. He stresses that choice is key to any technology deployment.

“For me, customer choice absolutely critical here.”

Fuller, formerly of Deloitte and Accenture, believes that location-based services have an important role to play in serving customers with the right content.

However, he notes that there is a line between promotion and invading the customer’s privacy.

“iBeacons can be used to spam customers, so you have to use that location very sensitively. You have to be careful that it is available for them, rather than you just bombard them.”

Waitrose has also experimented with mobile payments, including Apple Pay, as well as Google+ to build an online community for customers to peruse the latest content and deals.

Waitrose's Tom Fuller was speaking at the Internet of Retail
Waitrose’s Tom Fuller was speaking at the Internet of Retail

Debunking myths with tech and IoT

The most recent development has seen Waitrose partner with a US-based IoT start-up called Hiku, which has a product that bears some resemblance to Amazon’s Dash.

Using Hiku, the customer can scan the barcode from the product so that it goes straight onto their next shopping list. “This is taking grocery shopping off the screen and into the home,” said Fuller.

It’s early days though of course – the Waitrose exec mentions that only one percent of consumers are currently buying connected home devices, with the majority of the rest even unaware of what the term actually means. Then there’s also the issue of privacy with one audience member, an executive from Tesco Labs, remarking that Amazon’s Alexa AI (featuring on the Amazon Echo home system) “feels like a spy in the home.”

Fuller was also keen to do some myth-busting around the use of technology in retail.

In particular, he said that retailers don’t need to become software houses – “they need to become better at retail” – and that relevance is more important than personalisation. “Targeting is one step away from shooting”, he said, to much laughter from the audience.

And crucially, he added that going fast with technology isn’t always the right way.

“Going fast? Actually some customers want to go slow. It’s very easy to get excited about IoT, but only 13 percent know what it is.” He added that wearable technology is still in its “infancy” with smart watches leading the early adoption.