Social media is transforming the retail business – Accenture CTO

31 May 2012

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GavinMichael, CTO for innovation, Accenture

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The increasing penetration of social media and smartphone technology is giving rise to the availability of context-based shopping experiences, according to Accenture CTO in charge of innovation Gavin Michael. However, as social permeates real life, new tensions around privacy are also inevitable.

Michael, who before taking up the innovation CTO role at Accenture was IT director for Lloyds’ Banking Group where he directed technology rollout for its retail banking base, is responsible for directing Accenture’s technology vision and embracing trends that impact on the business landscape.

He says the retail business worldwide needs to be ready to leverage the rise of context-based services, an emerging technology trend where real-world digital data is aggregated to understand "who you are, where you are and what you are doing" to give consumers a rich experience.

Fuelled partly by smartphones

This technology trend, he explains, is being driven by soaring smartphone usage, the expansion of cloud computing and the explosion of social media participation.

This will require tools for aggregating and analysing multiple forms of data and acting in real-time to serve the customer who is either online or on premises.

"I think technology is in a wonderful position right now to make a lasting impact on the business. We are already seeing forward-looking CIOs taking advantage of the spike in mobility and cloud to change the way customers relate to their organisations to look for new revenue streams and ways in which the brand is represented and trusted in the customer base.

"It is the opportunity that lays before technology that becomes very passionate in the discussions we have. But you don’t forget the basics – service delivery is still the ticket to the dance so we spend a lot of time talking about that and the balance between strategic and operational priorities."

I put it to Michael that sites like Amazon, Facebook and Pinterest are already influencing consumer buying trends. How will social join up the online and offline shopping experience?

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"It’s interesting you talk about the Amazon experience, in the vision we lead with context-based services, understanding who you are, where you are and what you are doing to deliver that experience, but we also talk about sharing of data, the industrialised data services as a key enabler for those great context-based experiences we all want.

"Amazon is a great case in point, the way they share data is one we use as an exemplar of really putting data at the heart of the business and then being able to use those additional inputs, that wealth of information that exists in the unstructured world and converge with the structured world to provide those key insights. It’s only a matter of time before these services start to become more a matter of fact in our every day lives."

He provides the example of Shop Kick in the US, which provides apps to US retail giants like Macy’s, Target and Toys R Us and enhances the shopping experience.

"When you walk into the store it knows you are there and awards you with ‘kicks’ – virtual currency for being in the store. But there are companies that are out there that are looking to bring together those trends around context, sharing of data, architectures to produce that highly individualised digital experiences we all want."

The privacy issue

This is all a little reminiscent of the scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise’s character runs down the street and a scan of his iris prompts an ad telling him he could really use a Guinness right now. I ask Michael if big data and social media are an opportunity for retail brands, does he think the ongoing privacy debate will be a stumbling block or an opportunity?

"I think that tension between what we share and how it is used is one we need to manage in a very positive way. Relevance is key here, people are happy to share information. If what I get back is a relevant experience I’m prepared to let people know where I will be travelling to if that means I can get a better insight into the hotels that are there when I get there and this is what Reach.ly does, for example.

"This is a service that tries to understand from Twitter and provide a very profitable sharing environment around where I am going to be and match the two together.

"The challenge is going to be people don’t want to be bombarded with offers that are irrelevant. I think that’s really going to be the tension we need to manage and what brands need to manage."

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com