Are you ready for digital transformation? You'll need to be...

On Wednesday 21st October, the BMF held a virtual technology forum. It featured a panel of experts from different areas of technology, including ecommerce, stock optimisation and health and safety, and it proved to be a fascinating and in some places eye-opening session.

The forum is still available for members on the BMF website for members, if you’re interested (and you probably should be!) But we wanted to share a few of the key take-away points with you here as well.

Digital transformation is coming – and fast

Digital is advancing with a phenomenal rate of change. As Kevin Reeves, from the digital team at the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) reported, digital is growing 7 times faster than any other part of the economy.

Younger generations are digital natives – that is to say, they have grown up around technology that most of us could only have read about in sci-fi novels as children. This generation forms an increasingly large part of your customer and supplier base, and their expectations are very different to more traditional audiences.

Digital delivery – online ordering, online management systems, apps, AI, machine learning etc – is going to be become the standard. And merchants will have to be able to keep pace with that change, or risk losing out significantly.

What is digital transformation?

"Digital transformation is about enabling people to use information better, make better decisions, improve processes and apply technology wisely.” CLC Digital Team

Digital transformation – the process of changing business operations, management and commercial activity to online and automated platforms - is intended to make people’s lives easier. It may not sound like that up front, but digital systems can bring about an incredible improvement in efficiency, accuracy and performance.

Going digital doesn’t just mean adding online ordering or ecommerce to your business though – it goes much deeper. As the case study by Haldane Fisher made crystal clear, going digital requires a step change throughout the entire organisation – and it means updating ALL systems to digital to be able to provide good service.

Ecommerce needs digital foundations to succeed

All speakers were in agreement that an eCommerce platform will only succeed if the merchant has the digital back end operations to keep it running smoothly, and a great case study from Haldane Fisher made that even more apparent (see below).

“Ecommerce thrives when an organisation is underpinned by digital delivery.” Kevin Reeves, CLC

Fortunately, digital ERP systems have developed a long way too, and cloud systems (yes, like our own UT400, now you come to mention it…) can integrate seamlessly with industry specific eCommerce platforms like that of eCommonsense. UT400 offers an incredibly sophisticated stock optimisation functionality which not only enables merchants to accurately monitor and measure stockholdings, but also actively helps to optimise that stockholding’s value and reduce risks. (You can read more about that in last week’s blog on the Stock Turn KPI, and there will be a lot more exciting features being announced soon, so watch this space!)

Getting your digital ducks in a row before putting an eCommerce platform in place is so important, and will make the transition to digital an awful lot easier for you and your staff.

Technology is moving fast

It’s safe to say that technology is developing faster than most people can follow. The rise of voice search and visual search (based on applications like Google Lens) could prove challenging for merchants and make online performance harder to master.

The key piece of advice is all about building the right data foundations. It’s vital to make sure all products are accompanied by accurate, comprehensive descriptions, images and product information which gives enough detail to satisfy search engines (and the wide-ranging terminology used by internet users!) Plenty more information is available on this from the BMF and other trade organisations, and the European roll out of the ETIM project (which is all about data model standardisation for products across Europe) is also very relevant.

Digital is a whole-organisation shift

Haldane Fisher’s Stephen Rooney presented a convincing case study on the reasons behind their decision to go digital, explaining why it is so important to embrace digital across the organisation.

He outlined the strategic thinking behind the move – both in terms of growth strategy competitiveness, process, and service delivery, and also as a defensive strategy to future-proof the business, maintain relevance and to appeal to a younger workforce as an employer.

He offered a great deal of advice to any merchant thinking of going digital – the greatest of which was “Do it now – because sometimes later becomes never.” With technology changing so fast, the sooner these agile digital platforms are adopted the better, as they allow a much greater flexibility for expansion in the future.

Technology can be an invaluable tool for good

Change is rarely comfortable and making big changes across your business will inevitably involve hard work, expense and disruption. And perhaps recent reports about data mishandling and medical tracking on a national scale have not done a lot to reassure people that technology is a good thing. But digital transformation is happening regardless, and it’s better to be prepared.

Quite apart from the operations and management technology on show, it was fascinating to see technology being used for health and safety purposes during Covid and beyond. For example, RDS presented their health check entry stations using their patented BlackBox technology, offering identity scanning, mask policy adherence, temperature checking and so on. Perhaps the government should have knocked on their door while developing track and trace… Tools like these could offer huge peace of mind for merchants and their customers, ensuring a safer and healthier environment for all.

The forum showed so many different applications of technology – not least the fact that so many of us were able to still participate despite not being physically in the same room – and it’s important that we are not put off by perceived complexity. The cost and time savings, efficiency potential, sustainability and productivity capacity far outweigh any initial discomfort, and of course great service will always win out too.

Customer expectations are changing fast, and merchants need to be able to meet those needs – or unfortunately, there will be a competitor who will do so instead.

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