From barcodes to low-code: Powering digital transformation in retail

By Nick Pike, Vice-President, EMEA, OutSystems.

The invention of the barcode revolutionised the retail industry, making it possible for individual stores to stock a far wider range of products and to diversify their offering to appeal to a broader market. Walmart was an early adopter of barcodes, and the technology is credited with launching that retail giant's rise to marketplace domination.

More recent innovation in retail is proving a serious challenge to a sector that is in a state of flux, however. Every week brings a new tale of High Street casualties as hitherto unassailable brand favourites struggle to pivot their business models to meet changing customer expectations. There is competition on all sides, from the 1000-pound gorilla of Amazon to nimble web-native fashion start-ups setting out to corner the market without the overhead incurred by High Street brands. Large retail companies are being forced to work out how to transform their way out of trouble when they are anchored to legacy systems and don't have the luxury of the technological blank canvas that their competitors enjoy.

From operational to strategic: IT takes a seat in the boardroom

Fundamentally, companies are trying to negotiate the shift from bricks and clicks to the seamless experience that consumers now expect. Retail has evolved from a product-centric sector to a customer-centric, data-driven industry, and relevance is at stake for companies that can't keep up. History is littered with cautionary tales of businesses that didn't see the writing on the wall. Therefore, boards are looking at what the new, agile competition is doing and wondering how they can compete before it's too late.

All this has put retail-sector IT firmly in the spotlight. Once considered primarily an operational cost centre, savvy retailers are now turning to IT to deliver the strategic initiatives that affect their futures. There's a growing realisation that the function of IT in retail is now much more than enabling a logistics business; it needs to be a fully-fledged software company that is driving initiatives with a presence at board level. This puts even more pressure on already stretched departments.

What's preventing innovative digitisation?

Faced with the need to digitise almost every part of the customer journey, retail companies have been tempted to plug the gaps with off-the-shelf packages and apps built by third parties. These packages and apps deliver a quick fix and get their brand presence into the app store. But, when it comes time to integrate the sparkly front-end with the big iron on the back-end, companies can end up devoting a lot of valuable time and resources to simply keeping the lights on.

As a result, developing innovative propositions for the long term becomes difficult if not impossible. Updates to systems such as SAP swallow a significant proportion of retailers' budgets. As a result, little room is left for innovation, and the appetite is scant for pursuing experimental startup-style fail-fast-and-evolve strategies.

Retailers need a middle ground so they can capitalize on their previous investment in technology systems while also liberating in-house IT teams to build apps that solve business challenges and meet customer expectations. Low-code rapid application development platforms can help companies achieve this by enabling swift app development while still ensuring that they integrate fully with legacy databases and systems.

Delivering exactly what it says on the tin

Low-code does exactly what it says on the tin. It reduces the amount of time-consuming hand-coding required from developers. Apps can be developed and released to users faster. This reduction in coding has a couple of key benefits. First, no matter what industry you're in, skilled developers are a scarce resource and recruiting talent is difficult. With low-code, there's less technical expertise required. Business users can scope, design, and build their own apps. IT then enters the picture to tweak and iterate. Second, with the burden of hand-coding lifted, more skilled developers can build complex applications that integrate with critical systems much more quickly and effectively. In both cases, the pressure on IT department is relieved.

One business reaping the results of low-code is the international B2B pet supply company Beeztees, which has a 35-year heritage. Having identified the risks of the traditional wholesale model, the company knew it needed to transform into a full sales-and-marketing-driven e-commerce business. Beeztees had a legacy investment in SAP and turned to strategic partner B-Synergy to unlock its extensive data and make it available via web and mobile. B-Synergy deployed OutSystems for SAP and used its dedicated SAP connectors to build an e-commerce platform with features such as real-time inventory, order track-and-trace, and vendor integration facilities. As a result, Beeztees is now viewed as an innovator in the sector, exploring new ideas and quickly bringing them to market. IT is now seen as enabling strategic business growth, not just supporting the organisation.

Less risk, more agility for retail

Whether it's automating a business process to make logistics and delivery more efficient or creating a new behavioural-insight-driven digital experience for customers, low-code allows retailers to become more agile. The risk associated with exploring new ideas and applications is reduced, giving teams more freedom to innovate. Apps can go from concept to deployment in weeks. And, they can be modified and improved in a live environment, delivering ROI fast. In the fast-paced world of retail, that's a key advantage that helps redress the balance between established brands and their nimble competitors.

Effectively, by going down the low-code path, established retailers can adopt the same tactics being used by their competitors. By taking a disruptive technology and embedding it into the organisation, it becomes enabling. That's essential for driving innovation, transformation, and, ultimately, long-term survival.

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