OK, so retailers have got face scanning technology, and the self-service checkout, what next? Zooming right to the top of the list of stuff we didn’t know we wanted – but we soon won’t be able to live without – is what the boffins call the ‘Internet of Things’.
The idea is that inanimate objects – like fridges, boilers, kettles – are connected to virtual networks and can communicate with each other and their owners. The concept isn’t that new, and it has been possible for security cameras, heating systems and the like to be activated and monitored remotely for some time. Once upon a time the ultimate application predicted by scientists was the ability for fridges to sense they were running low on some essential commodity and simply add it to your shopping list, or order it themselves online. When this was first mooted I had nightmarish visions of fridges developing a craving for cheese and creating a world shortage by clubbing together and buying massive quantities. But I digress!
It’s not cheese consuming fridges that are going to turn retail on its head, it’s the latest point of sale technologies! Some say they will be more revolutionary than the introduction of online shopping, or credit and debit cards for purchasing, and that they have the potential to be totally transformative. futurologists predict that one day soon a woman will be able to walk into a store, grab what she wants and simply leave. No need for the checkout, nothing! Today we call them shoplifters, but tomorrow ‘grab and go’ may become legitimate thanks to the ‘Internet of Things’! It may seem extreme, but IoT presages dramatic change in the customer experience.
How will it work? A population of sensor technologies placed strategically within stores, will allow retailers to recognize customers when they walk in the door through their smart devices or other means. Stores will have payment cards on file; customers will be billed when they leave the store with the merchandise, bypassing the checkout.
Store-side, sensors can be placed on shelves to indicate when stock is low and trigger replenishment. Meanwhile intelligent product displays that detect who is around them will deliver customized content via video screens and booths. Video cameras will gather analytic data on store traffic or as part of RFID systems to speed up checkout queues, or even total up the content of your shopping trolley as you wait.
So far, so good, but why? One reason is that with the rise of online shopping, retailers have some self-inflicted problems to solve. Like, how to iron out clashes between their in-store and online offerings, how to look consistent across all platforms, and how to give added value and variety to an arid environment. OK, there is some disconnect between what consumers find online and what they get when they walk into the store, and the march of the mundane and the ubiquitous gathers pace. But, aren’t the futurologists proposing to use a technological sledge-hammer to crack a very small nut?
Just because something is technically possible, must we do it? Couldn’t we put all this technology to better use? These and other questions make me a little uneasy. What about security? Would we be asking customers to sacrifice their anonymity just to conform to the needs of machines, or adapt their behaviour to accommodate technology? Surely that’s the wrong way around! Will these developments inevitably lead to less employment, fewer people providing service, security, and human contact? Would the disconnected find themselves disenfranchised; would the connected have their data protected? And on the most banal level, how would a store detective separate the legitimate customer from the shop lifter in a shop where you just pocket the goods and leave?
It’s a seductive idea, but isn’t this yet another example of inventing a complex answer to a non-existent ‘problem’ of our own making, and wouldn’t it just be simpler to employ more people? They at least are a resource that is in endless and ever- increasing supply!
About 9.30 a.m. on Bank Holiday Monday my home telephone rang, and I answered it cheerily, thinking it was an offspring anxious to share his latest travel adventures. But no, to my irritation it was a bloke with a Welsh accent representing a claims company. As you can imagine, I informed him – politely, but firmly – that it was a Bank Holiday and his call wasn’t welcome!
Would you believe it, Bank Holiday Monday!! But then I suppose it’s not a holiday everywhere. I guess the chaps with Indian accents and names like Roger and Keith can be grudgingly forgiven. After all I don’t suppose ‘Bank Holiday’ means very much in Mumbai! But Wales? Unless this was a particularly sophisticated double bluff, shouldn’t my caller have known better than to shatter the tranquillity of my Bank Holiday? But nothing is sacrosanct! And the future only holds the prospect of further erosion of our privacy and peace of mind.
Recently, I wrote about the latest attempt to sweep away the remaining limits to Sunday trading hours on the spurious grounds that supermarkets shouldn’t be disadvantaged by internet shopping, and should be permitted – because of some flawed logic – to stay open continuously just to counter the threat. But hey! We’re not predominantly a Christian country anymore and Sunday will soon be a regular shopping day.Until now it has remained mostly sacrosanct because of vestigial reverence for the Sabbath. But what next? How long will Sunday remain out-of-bounds? Or even the night-time hours! Will any hour of the day or night be out-of-bounds to cold callers when there is stuff to be hawked in the new consumer utopia? And how convenient to raise a captive audience from their beds; they’ll almost always be home, and they’ll agree to anything before they come to properly!
I’m not alone in feeling that a land-line is a liability. It already feels like the sole purpose of ours is the answering and rebuttal of unwanted calls. Dragging myself to the phone at inconvenient moments, I’ve grown pretty adept at feigning mental inadequacy or projecting out-right hostility. But nothing deters them, and for two pins I’d ditch my land-line. Maybe, that’s what the providers want? Or maybe, when the UK’s internet service providers have dealt with piracy and illegal downloads, they will find time to deal with nuisance sales calls? After all it’s the ISPs, like BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media that rent the land-lines too!
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Man’s capacity for finding ‘miracle’ solutions for problems of his own making never ceases to amaze me! The latest wheeze involves what the Daily Telegraph and Mail Online are calling ‘Big Brother’ style self-service check-outs that tell shops who is likely to steal from them. The details are sketchy right now, but reports have it that Symbol Technologies – who developed self-scan check-outs for many of the big supermarkets – has lodged a patent for a customer profiling program that monitors shoppers. Using statistical analysis and loyalty data the software is likely to predict the types of customers who may steal, and the most vulnerable grocery items.
I bet somebody is feeling really proud of themselves for coming up with that one! First you sell retailers self-service check-outs, then you sell them a tool to predict who’s going to nick stuff as a result of going self-service, then presumably you provide them with more surveillance technology to ward off the thieves. Once upon a time we had a handy little device that could cope with all three of those operations at once. They were called checkout operators! If you paid them next to nothing on zero hours contracts they were pretty cheap to run too, and they performed other tasks for you as well. Like chatting to customers, which has now been re-bottled as customer ‘engagement’ and employs social media drones to generate yards of sycophantic on-line drivel.
Amazingly enough the newspaper reports suggest that store card data will be able to predict who is likely to steal food. Whether that just means poor people with a bad postcode, as well as wealthy chancers, isn’t entirely clear. But even more amazingly it can predict that people are more likely to nick something small like a packet of batteries, than stagger away with a water melon under their coat. The British Retail Consortium said it was unaware of the technology but would monitor the situation closely. Presumably some-one has sold them a program for that too!
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Every trade association or membership organisation should have a social media presence, right? Yes, but think hard before leaping in! It’s not something to be tackled halfheartedly, so be sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, and have the right resources – human and financial – at your disposal.
As a former trade association CEO, if my inbox is anything to go by, some of the most hyped training courses are about getting the most out of social networking. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t get an invitation to attend a course where I will learn about the effective use of the Internet and social media to drive business growth. The idea being to harness Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google +, and others to drive sales.
There is anecdotal evidence that it works. Contrary to tradition, and In a reversal of their usual approach of shouting about the unique benefits of their product in the hope of snagging customers who are ready to buy, some companies are trying to build a community of interest around their activities and employing engagement marketing to bring customers to them. It is one stage on from transactional marketing and it clearly works for those companies that have employed it to best advantage.
But will it work for membership organisations? The key words, of course, are ‘community of interest’; or the people who buy into the ideas, brand, or lifestyle that is being promulgated, or share the same beliefs as those doing the talking. It’s the basis on which all membership bodies work, so the concept is not new, it’s just the method used to achieve your objective. For instance, back in the olden days, retailers had local high street shops, and they developed a community of interest by talking to their customers and understanding their lives and needs. Membership bodies did the same using print media, social events, and meetings. But now, because we enjoy less personal contact, and a businesses’ ‘community’ may be flung far and wide, we need to use new tools to achieve the same ends, so social media appears ideal.
But beware! What might seem at first glance to be a cheap and cheerful marketing tool – beloved of trade associations – may swiftly become an albatross around your neck if you don’t have the resources to see it through? And by that I don’t just mean money! Before membership bodies take the leap they should be mindful of some of the pitfalls. Because, once committed, there is no going back!
The Internet is not the sole preserve of the young, but it’s a fact that having been brought up in a computer based environment they take more readily to the medium. The age of your target ‘community’ will influence your tone and how you communicate, but don’t imagine you can just hire a ‘youngster’ and let them get on with it! Plus, social media sites aren’t a broadcast medium. The traffic isn’t all one way and they rely on action and reaction; developing a conversation over time. So, ask yourself, can you develop an enduring narrative; are you comfortable writing persuasive informal text; and can you keep it up day after day and night after night. Considering the websites I’ve seen that haven’t been updated since the year dot, and the lamentable rubbish I’ve read online, the evidence isn’t looking too good!
Consider the amount of precious time consumed just reacting to your email inbox, and the time commitment is pretty clear! And have you, personally, got heaps of sparkling ideas with which to entice your eager waiting community? Describing your breakfast every day simply won’t cut it – unless you own a café – and what happens when you want to take a break? Going silent for a fortnight isn’t an option, so without help you can wave goodbye to uninterrupted holidays, your life will never be your own again.
So, the tools may be free but the content isn’t. It takes resources – both human and financial – to develop engaging content, and there can be reputational risks too! It’s all well and good when your community loves you, your ideas, service and product. What happens when they don’t? Or, more likely, when a vocal minority, or a disgruntled customer doesn’t! An old customer service mantra used to run something like, ‘a happy customer will tell his best friend and an unhappy one will tell everyone’. That was in the days of neighbourhood gossip, today the Internet has given rumour an exponential boost. Just look at current world events to see the power of social networks and the inherent risk if they disseminate unfettered and un-moderated comments.
But these aren’t reasons not to proceed, just why you mustn’t assume social media is a cheap option that can be easily delegated. It requires, clear objectives, defined resources, excellent content, measurement and management. And, once you commit to the process, you’d you better get your running shoes on to keep up with the ‘next big thing’. Because as surely as night follows day, when the pioneers and acolytes of social networking realise that their chosen medium has been debased by cynics, they will move on faster than you can say Twitter. With effectively half the UK population having an account, Facebook is now arguably mainstream, and the corollary of that is that it’s no longer ‘cool’ for the younger generation – and probably hasn’t been for a couple of years at least. I guess that’s what we call progress folks!
But, with a little bit of help, it doesn’t have to be like that.
The big retailers are making another of their periodic attempts to abolish Sunday Trading restrictions. But why? According to the Daily Mail, Philip Davies MP, the vice-chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Retail Group, supported by Asda, Morrisons and Selfridges, intends to table a series of amendments to the Deregulation Bill currently going through Parliament. Under the Sunday Trading Act 1994, shops of over 300,000 sq. ft. can only open for a maximum of six hours on Sunday, and not before 10am. New proposals include abolishing restrictions altogether; giving local authorities power to decide; and allowing large garden centres to open for eight hours on Sunday.
What is this obsession with de-regulating Sunday Trading? The last attempt was back in July 2011 when Mark Menzies MP tabled a Ten Minute Rule Bill which aimed to allow temporary relaxations of Sunday trading regulations for the duration of the Olympic Games. The justification was that it would accommodate the demand from thousands of visiting tourists. The inconvenience to thousands of shop workers was, it seems, of no consequence!
Many commentators saw the amendment as the thin end of a wedge which would eventually tear the Sunday Trading Act asunder. Some retailers weren’t too keen either, and believed that relaxation of the rules would merely spread existing trade thinner while increasing operational costs. Apparently, Davies believes the rise in online shopping me
ans the time is now right to change the law. The argument that longer hours will enable retailers to compete with the internet’s 24-hour presence has been wheeled out before. I don’t follow the logic. Surely the idea of internet shopping sites – mostly run by retailers anyway – is to trade while shops are shut? Staying open 24/7 to compete with your own website seems counter intuitive and pointless. Wouldn’t it just increase overheads for retailers already struggling for meagre returns?
So, if longer hours are a mixed blessing for retailers, does the public have a thirst for change? Not on the evidence of the long forgotten Red Tape Challenge, which asked the electorate to answer the question, ‘should they (the regulations) be scrapped altogether?’ Of the 2,695 comments logged, the overwhelming majority seemed to be against! Hardly a ringing endorsement then!
It seems that on-the-spot justice is back on the agenda again. But isn’t right-leaning think tank Policy Exchange just putting old ideas in new bottles by revisiting an idea that was first floated – in a different guise – nearly four years ago? Last time around the motivation was to bring justice back into the centre of the community by putting courts in places accessible to the public – like supermarkets! This time, according to recent reports on the BBC, the motivation is cutting Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunals Service budget by 37% before 2016. All the old arguments for and against still apply, but a new thought occurs. Will so-called ‘Police Courts’ do more to harm the image of the police than aid efficiency?
As the opening sequence of ‘Law & Order: UK’ reminds us every episode, “In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: The police who investigate crime, and the Crown Prosecutors who prosecute the offenders.” If we undermine the public’s faith in the distinction between these two aspects of the law, do we also call into question the impartiality of the court system, and undermine the presumption of innocence which is every citizen’s right until proven otherwise? Furthermore, in an age when police credibility is continuously under attack, do they really need the public to form the – mistaken – impression that they are judge and jury rolled into one? Surely this is another burden the police don’t need to shoulder!
Here’s what I wrote in Jewellery Focus in October 2010: –
The newspapers have been full of gleeful stories about courts in shopping centres with the more extreme foaming at the mouth at the prospect of handing out summary justice to shoplifters and other miscreants. As usual, the story isn’t quite what it seems, but it does prompt an interesting train of thought.
It seems that the Magistrates Association, which represents 28,000 members, is to call on the Ministry of Justice to set up improvised courts in empty shops and unused council rooms to deliver “summary justice that is as speedy and local as possible”. The proposal comes as the government consults on closing more than 100 courts to save money; instead it wants to send offenders to fewer, larger courts. Currently Her Majesty’s Court Service operates 330 magistrate’s courts and is concerned that some hear too few cases. Many buildings are also not fully accessible for disabled court users and do not have secure facilities for prisoners.
But by reducing court numbers the Magistrates Association is afraid that the result might be longer journeys to court, thus discouraging offenders from turning up; and increasing the number of ‘no-shows’ resulting in more delays and extra expense. Shoplifting and drink–driving, where offenders have been caught red-handed and will plead guilty, and can normally be handled quickly, might also create bottlenecks. “Petty offenders commit crimes that should be dealt with as quickly as possible and as locally as possible,” said John Howson, the association’s deputy chairman. “Justice should not be hidden away and people should be able to see it in operation. We could have a court in the Westfield shopping centre for instance, so that instead of a shoplifter being taken to a police station and it taking hours to build a file, even if they are going to plead guilty, they could be dealt with far more quickly.”
Clearly the idea has some merit, and it is sensible to have police stations and courts in places that are accessible to the population, and increasingly shopping centres fulfil that role. Plus, if shopping mall courts deal predominantly with shoplifting and driving offences, they may speed up the process. But doesn’t this proposal prompt a number of other questions? For instance, doesn’t everyone, even those who are ultimately found guilty, have the right to prepare a defense, and have adequate legal representation? If shoplifters are frog marched straight from shop to court, is it good enough to rely on the evidence of private security operatives alone, and what quality of evidence should be required? And aren’t we in danger of undermining the basis of English law, which assumes the defendant to be ‘innocent until proven guilty’?
The popular papers might capture the imagination by conjuring up mental images of summary justice, and the doling out of swift public retribution, but I don’t think we should be rebuilding the stocks any time soon. Popping down the shops for a couple of pounds of spuds and a ritual flogging might appeal to some, but I think cases should be heard in places that reflect the solemnity, majesty and weight of the law. That could be in a shopping centre, but hopefully not, as the papers would have us believe, in the front window of Tesco. We all know errors occur. Imagine yourself, for one moment, being apprehended by mistake. Even when your case is dismissed and you are found not guilty, your friends and business contacts will still give you a wide birth at the golf club, because mud sticks, and reputations are easily destroyed.
Lastly, and perhaps cynically, might this be the thin end of the wedge whereby the argument is advanced that because shoplifting puts a heavy burden on court time, retailers should pay for the courts? Planning approval often comes with a 106 agreement stipulating that developers stump up cash for infrastructure improvements like roads and drainage. Why not police stations or courts? If we go down that route then the next logical step would be to hold driving offence hearings in motorway service stations. Now that would be justice!
A couple of weeks ago I wrote (Wait for it…wait for it!) about the adrenaline kick from the instant gratification provided by shopping; remarking that we need look no further than the hysteria generated by Black Friday discounts as an example of retailers harnessing this effect to their advantage. I went so far as to suggest that retailers’ USPs might soon include ‘best fist fight in pursuit of a bargain’, or ‘best Black Friday riot’. Little did I think I might be predicting the future, or that 99p Stores would be so far ahead of the curve. But then in last Wednesday’s Guardian newspaper there appeared the headline, ‘Police called to quell riot as 99p store halts sale‘.
Apparently police were called to a 99p Store in Wrexham, north Wales, after crowds flocked to a half-price sale, enticed by posters offering everything for 50p! But trouble flared when shoppers laden with cleaning products, toilet rolls, crisps and drinks, were told the sale was over – and everything was again 99p – as they queued to pay. Bedlam ensued, and the shop had to be closed when shoppers refused to leave, but no arrests were made.
Now, giving shoppers a thrill is one thing, but the roller coaster emotions engendered by a ‘now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t’ sale are taking it a bit too far don’t you think? And just how have we got to such a sorry state that a sale in a 99p shop generates this much excitement? It’s made me think though. I was always against moving police stations – and even courts – into retail premises to save money. But now – if we’re regularly going to experience ‘shopping-as-soap-opera’ – I’m not so sure! Shop, arrest, court, all in one place is so much more efficient. Or is this what they meant by bringing drama back to the high street. What do you think?
Thirteen million people are believed to live below the poverty line in the UK. Rising costs of food and fuel combined with static incomes, high unemployment, and changes to benefits are causing more and more people to seek help with their basic needs.
Food banks are one answer, and with almost 400 already launched, the Trussell Trust is one of the biggest providers. Its aim is to open one in every town; providing those who are referred to them in crisis with a minimum of three days emergency food. But for all their good intentions charity food banks can only provide a temporary sticking plaster. Now there is another contender gearing up to supply the poor!
Just before Christmas Britain’s first “social supermarket” opened its doors, offering shoppers on the verge of food poverty the chance to buy their supplies at up to 70% less than normal high-street prices. If successful, the Community Shop, in Goldthorpe, near Barnsley, South Yorkshire, could be replicated elsewhere in Britain. It is reportedly backed by retailers, manufacturers, and brands like Asda, Morrison’s, Co-operative Food, M&S, Tesco, Mondelez, Ocado, Tetley, Young’s, and Müller.
Community Shop is a subsidiary of Company Shop, Britain’s largest commercial re-distributor of surplus food and goods, which works with retailers and manufacturers to liquidate their mistakes. Selling on residual products, such as those with damaged packaging or incorrect labelling, to membership-only staff shops in factories. The new project goes one step further, located in the community for the first time and also matching surplus food with social need.
Goldthorpe is an area of social deprivation and membership of the pilot store will be restricted to people living in a specific local postcode area who also get welfare support. Community Shop customers will not only get access to cheaper food, but will also be offered programmes of wider social and financial support, such as debt advice, cookery skills and home budgeting.
Should the pilot prove successful and sustainable, Community Shops will open in London and elsewhere next year. However, not all commentators welcome the move. Some, whilst conceding that the scheme offers access to cheap food without the humiliation associated with using food banks, suggest this is just the thin end of the wedge. The introduction to society of ‘second class citizen shopping’, and providing retailers with a positive message with which to divert lingering criticism of food waste are just two of the accusations levelled at Community shops.
In the USA, about 1 in 7 Americans receive food stamps – vouchers exchanged at specified stores – to supplement their low-income. Critics of Community Shops have voiced concerns that they are simply a covert way of introducing something similar in the UK. As one blogger put it, “It is still a division of classes, the haves and the have-nots. There would be riots if food stamps were issued in this country, this is why these stores are being introduced. Slowly and surely they will spread and when there is one in every poor community, vouchers for these stores will begin to replace some benefit payments.”
It is early days for the Goldthorpe shop, and the jury is still out on this particular initiative. But with food adulteration stories reaching the press, one can’t help wondering just what kind of damaged or incorrectly labelled foodstuffs are going to be foisted on the long-suffering shoppers, who in return could potentially have to endure ‘good advice’ on cooking, budgeting, and debt. Whatever the rights and wrongs, isn’t there just a hint of Victorian style philanthropy about all this?
This headline in the January 3rd edition of The Daily Telegraph has to be one of the most intriguing of the year so far – just for its sheer improbability! Not that food adulteration stories are anything to laugh about. Especially in China, where contamination of baby formula milk, and cooking oil, have both led to dire health consequences and severe punishments for the perpetrators. But the thought of tucking into a delicious plate of donkey and finding a bit of fox in it puts our own squeamishness about horse meat in the shade don’t you think? Now, if you’ve quite finished your hedgehog, can you pass the salt!
Running anything – let alone a trade association – is never easy, but to do it with your head buried in the sand requires not only a certain level of athletic ability but also a facility for decision making without the benefit of evidence and information. Risky, one might think, but plenty of association CEOs are choosing to adopt this position when it comes to the government’s upcoming changes to pensions. Lulled into a false sense of security by the phasing in of ‘Auto-enrolment’, many employers have assumed that it will be ages before the rules are applied to them; that they are too small to be affected; or the rules will suddenly and magically disappear!
The reality is of course that none of the above is true, and that the changes affect all workers including full-time, part-time, agency, zero-hours, offshore – even possibly contractors on the payroll – aged between twenty-two and the state pension age. In other words, an awful lot of people, as IofAM members who attended the Association’s latest seminar recently found out. On hand to give them the bad news was Mark Stevens, an employee benefits consultant with Close Brothers, a specialist financial services group with expertise in banking, securities, and asset management.
The changes came about as the result of the realisation that the ratio of working people to pensioners fell from 10:1 in 1901, to 4:1 in 2005, and looks set diminish to 2:1 by 2050, according to estimates from the Department of Work and Pensions. The alarm having been raised, Lord Turner, Chair of the Pensions Commission 2003-2006, set out the new ground rules, which included a fairer and more generous State Pension; low cost pension aimed at low-to-moderate earners; automatic enrolment into workplace pension schemes; and compulsory minimum employer and employee contributions.
All well and good, you might think, but even the Pensions Regulator is quoted as saying ”Employers should be under no illusion: implementing auto enrolment will take time, including assessing the suitability of their existing pensions arrangements or choosing a scheme, and adapting their payroll, HR, pensions and IT systems” – and that was in December 2011! The fundamental message is that there will be no escape from the 270 pages of legislation, and that all employers will have to comply between now and 2016. And if you think that’s a long way off, think again, as most IofAM members will have to comply within 12-18 months! Not only that, but they will come under increasing pressure from their own members to provide them with advice and guidance as the deadlines draw closer.
Finally, if nothing else convinces you that it’s time to take advice, then a quick look at the penalties for non-compliance will surely do the trick. An infringement at stage two of the process can incur a fixed penalty of £400 – a wake-up call for the unwary – whereas daily penalties escalate from £50 – £10,000 for serious and persistent offenders, dependent on the number of employees. But, if you still want to go it alone, it’s time to get stuck in. The first step is to collect complete and accurate data; assess your workforce; model the financial impact; and then establish a qualifying Workplace Pension Scheme. Then you can move on to assess payroll processes and functionality, review the market, and select appropriate technology solution(s). After that it’s just a case of communicating compliantly; continually assessing your workers; managing Opt-in/Opt-out; and maintaining you record keeping. Easy!
The Institute of Association Management (IofAM) is an independent professional body made up of managers and senior staff responsible for the management, development and governance of trade bodies, professional institutes, societies, chambers of commerce, voluntary organisations, charities and other representative groups. The purpose of the Institute is to develop, promote and share best practice for the benefit of IofAM members and all those involved in the governance of associations. To achieve its objectives, the IofAM offers a forum for education, training and development, dissemination of information, networking, and research.