With the rising norm of online shopping, apps, virtualisation, big data and cloud offerings, retail customers no longer need to visit stores physically to have a premium experience or go through aisles and load carts.

By Rob Hudson

The business-to-consumer market is changing rapidly. From retailer objectives and customer expectations, to outgoing expenses and IT potential – everything seems to be expanding – everything, that is, apart from profit margins. Digitisation has arguably played the most disruptive role to this reality that has seen some of retail’s giants lose a significant competitive edge.

The global and local retail markets remain very profitable, however, technology is levelling out the playing ground. Digitisation is giving retailers big and small, the power to go global. This means that upcoming retailers have gained a competitive advantage to compete with large traditional retailers who took decades to establish themselves, subsequently changing the concept of what it takes to be competitive and profitable in the market.

Due to this tech-induced influx in competition, consumers are calling the shots. While being spoilt-for-choice, they decide when and how they want to engage and on which platform. One of the biggest challenges faced by retailers is to understand customer behaviour and patterns. Simply put, retailers today are more concerned about how to remain relevant while growing and retaining their clientele than ever before.

Re-inventions across advertising, virtualisation, biometrics, managing big data and the need to maintain a convenient physical store experience present far more complexities for the large traditional retailer – often due to their legacy systems and processes. This can certainly also affect their adoption of disruptive technologies across their business footprint – from headquarters to store network – and leads to higher cost implications.

On the other hannd, start-up retailers are able to effortlessly embrace new technologies because they may either be purely online, or tapping into a more digital savvy store presence without legacy systems that need to be shed off.

It’s out with the old and in with the new, quickly, for the retail industry. Technology is filling the gaps between business and consumer. From our research and industry experience, we have identified five crucial disruptive technologies that are shaping the face of retail of the future.


Cloud computing

Cloud-based solutions can simplify systems and deliver more personalised customer experience. Also, the platforms provide improved channel operations and higher supply chain visibility. The power and flexibility of cloud technology can be utilised to improve customer experience, reduce on costs and bring about efficiency in the business process.


Internet of Things (IoT)

Customers expect retailers to know them well, be where they are, and deliver a great end-to-end experience that is no longer about isolated interactions, but rather a full circle journey in which there are multiple interactions. With billions of connected IoT items, this expectation can be met.

Additionally, IoT and mobile technologies will liberate sales associates from chasing down items in the stock room and manning pay-points so they can engage their customers in person and provide a truly individual service to everyone.


Artificial intelligence (AI)

AI can be used as a monitoring tool across various digital platforms.

Additionally, social listening, powered by AI engines, can help retailers gauge shifting moods, emerging opportunities, or additional groups of users to target with marketing. Better still, businesses can feed the intelligence back into their development and customer service teams to inspire new products or service innovations.

The more a company is seen to listen and respond to customers, the better the experience and brand perception. It can also reduce costs for the business: once it is doing more of what they want, customers are less likely to complain.


Immersive metrics

Leveraging the collective power of these first three digital technology trends, and life size metrics, is taking the digital shopping experience to the next level.

To begin, in recent years we have seen clothing and fashion brands offering adaptive means for consumers to “try the look” without having to go in store. What started as enabling a customer to upload a photograph of themselves and drag a flat images of clothing items over their photograph to “try the look”, as a value add service this continues to evolve.

Today, brands on the cutting edge are using gamification to build virtual fitting/changing rooms into their online shopping portals and mobile applications to offer customers a unique experience. A customer can enter their biometrics (personal body measurements) and an avatar, or virtual mannequin, adjusts to fit their dimensions – and a customer can then “try on” any number of items of clothing and view a more mirror like reflection of “the look”.

This trend is catching on with furniture, DIY franchises and even paint brands who are developing applications that enable consumers to, for example, enter the metrics or dimensions of a room in their house and do a virtual renovation. Consumers can pick anything from paint colours to furniture and accents – so as to create the look they want before committing financially to any purchases.



Retail today is increasingly about loyalty and trust. After all, customers are more and more likely to allow retailers to collect personal data in exchange for the benefits of a personalised experience.

However, there is also the ongoing concern regarding the security that protects this customer information – particularly as the volume of cyber-attacks continues to grow in this increasingly digital world.

Therefore, retailers need to be serious about protecting their organisations and their customers from this growing threat, by making certain they get their basic housekeeping right in terms of people, processes and technology. And, a successful retailer will be the one that differentiates itself by offering the most secure service on the market.

Retail today, by far, provides a more compelling customer experience through digitisation. And, the future of retail will be shaped by those who embrace new possibilities, to continuously up the ante on providing a great experience to their customers.


Rob Hudson is the chief technology officer of BT in Africa

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