The joy of shopping

Ralph Donohue sees only opportunity in the pain being felt in our high streets and retail parks.

Around a century-and-a-half after its publication, Napoleons famous bon mot about the English nation signified happy times ahead for the countrys embryonic IT practitioners. Little did the scathing exile know that the UK would gain a deserved worldwide reputation as an early adopter of new technologies, not least within its celebrated retail industry.
However, it hasnt gone unnoticed that our brave boutiquiers have been experiencing what can only be described as mixed fortunes of late. While the rise of our leading grocers seems to continue unabated (much like the national waistline, the one feeding off the other, as it were), those retailers specialising in non-food merchandise are not all enjoying the same market buoyancy.

The key question for readers of this column, of course, is: Is this news good or bad for us? On the whole, and assuming you havent over-extended credit terms to an already over-extended (and shortly to be ex-) merchant, it should have us all positively tingling with excitement.

...when retailers generally are finding it necessary to tighten their belts in order to keep their shareholders at bay, its a reasonable bet that mobile solutions providers are going to be in a position to benefit.

Focus tightly on costs

A common thread ran through the Christmas trading statements released by our major multiples in the early weeks of this year. It went roughly along the lines of: While consumer confidence remains low, we will continue to focus tightly on costs, on stock management and on margin maintenance. Now, Im no expert on chairman-speak, but Im pretty sure that sounds like: We will have to invest more in IT.

Besides rent and ratesand theres not a huge amount you can do about them, apart from closing all your shops and becoming an e-tailera retailers major costs are pay and pilfering. Information technology has a big role to play in reducing both of these.
Mobile computing is deployed in many business processes in the retail industry. Take the stock count for example: where previously this might have taken several people many days to complete, not always accurately, the use of bar codes and mobile data terminals substantially reduced the time taken, the manpower required and the errors madeI believe thats whats known as a win-win-win situation.

Want to track trucks?

The more areas in which mobile computing and auto ID are applied, throughout the supply chain, the greater the savings become. Want to know that exactly what went onto the truck at the distribution centre came off it at the store? Tick. Want to know that everything that arrives at the store goes onto the shelves? Tick. Want to track trucks and trailers into and out of each store and warehouse? Tick. Want to ensure that goods leaving the store have been paid for? Tick.

So, when retailers generally are finding it necessary to tighten their belts in order to keep their shareholders at bay, its a reasonable bet that mobile solutions providers are going to be in a position to benefit. Factor in some hardware churn stimulated by the RoHS initiative (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) and you have the makings of a bountiful year.

Not one to rely solely on gut-feel and presumption, I can underpin my optimism with the fact that our major retail-focused resellers are in pretty high spirits too. Despite the recent suggestion of certain Wall Street analysts that retail slow-down will hurt Symbols growth prospects this year (a conclusion that I feel doesnt logically follow from the premiss, for aforementioned reasons), I expect the leading vendors in the mobile data arena to enjoy fat order books for the time-being. And, as long as they remember to ship product in a timely (and complete) manner, sales targets will be met and there will be food on all our tables.

Minimise the pain

Lest anyone reading this imagines that I am lurching away from carefully considered confidence towards vaingloriousness, I do, of course, feel for those in retailing who are facing discomfort. It is the duty of resellers to minimise the pain of these people, to assist them in their journey to a new IT-based utopia. Having known bad times as well as good in business, I like to think that I possess an appropriate sensitivity to the plight of those less fortunate. I may not be a shopkeeper but I am an EnglishmanI could never simply say: Let them eat cake. bientt!
Ralph Donohue is managing director of Paradigm Distributionone of the UK's longest established specialist trade-only suppliers of mobile data and auto ID products to systems integrators and resellers.

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