UK retailers must modernise to survive, and thrive

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The pressures currently facing UK retailers have been brought into sharp focus in recent weeks, with extensive store closures of some of the UK’s most established high street stalwarts, from House of Fraser to Poundland. It’s a trend that has been building through the year following the demise of a number of high profile brands including Toys R Us and Maplin, which filed for administration in February. The uncertainties of Brexit, rising operational costs, reduced consumer spending and the continued growth of online shopping giants have all contributed to a tough sales landscape. 

In the face of these challenges, retailers have refocused their digital ambitions to ensure that the business is equipped to weather the storm and respond to changing customer demands. Priorities have been placed on implementing cloud and mobile technology that can build a more customer-centric, omni-channel approach to doing business. With 18 out of the 25 most successful global retailers running their business on a mainframe, there is a significant opportunity for brands to draw on this hardware powerhouse to deliver the data and business processes that are needed to support the growth of mobile, web apps and cloud-based software. Making this modern mainframe a reality is a crucial step that needs to be taken, for retailers to be able to survive in today’s competitive sales landscape. 

The mainstream mainframe

When looking at the role that the mainframe plays at the heart of many retail businesses, it’s impossible to gloss over the sheer processing power delivered by the hardware. No matter what application is implemented, retailers needs a secure, scalable and flexible platform to provide the functionality the business requires and the high-quality service that customers expect. The mainframe delivers exactly this: true end-to-end encryption, almost endless scalability and the ability to dynamically adjust pricing to suit vastly different needs. 

Mainframes are often an untapped resource for businesses when it comes to digital transformation: as a deep reservoir of critical business information, a mainframe can process more than 12 billion transactions every day. No other system can handle the high volume and speed of transactions required as reliably and securely as the mainframe.

Investing in software tools that provide access to the incredibly valuable data stored within the mainframe is the key to developing new - and extending existing - applications to drive fresh revenue streams and keep retailers competitive. With the mainframe providing an invaluable foundation when it comes to data management, storage and processing, new devices can tap into this and deliver better processes both on the shop floor and in back-end warehouses. Most importantly, pairing the mainframe with modern technologies and new software tools will allow retailers to provide even better customer service, and optimise their marketing efforts. By gaining real-time access to consumers’ transactional data within the mainframe, retailers can ensure that customers are receiving the best, personalised brand offers, while also helping the retailer to pinpoint emerging patterns in customer behaviour. All this will play a crucial role in halting the exodus of consumers to the online brands – like Amazon and Asos - that are currently monopolising the market. 

The mainframe skills conundrum

Being digitally agile today requires organisations to update their core mainframe systems quickly and frequently but there is some concern over who is going to be around to do that. The average age of mainframe experts is now passing that of retirement. COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language) is seen by some as an ancient language, with bright young developers attracted to newer programming languages such as Java, Python and C++. 

While coding education as a whole needs a much greater investment in the UK (only 11 per cent of students in the UK took computer science at GCSE level for the 2015-16 academic year) COBOL is not such an issue as people think: the modern mainframe no longer relies on COBOL to operate and can work with newer, more popular languages and tools – JavaScript and Git for example - which are without a doubt the future of mainframe development. What's more, they ensure that the next generation of millennial developers can work with the mainframe.

Results that speak for themselves

At Rocket, we have been working with a leading UK supermarket to help them access the data on their mainframe via mobile devices. It’s common practice among large retailers for staff to use PC or desktop-based solutions to access the mainframe. Whether they are in-store or behind the scenes, they are - more often than not - tethered to their computer. 

In a warehouse environment, this requires workers to go back and forth to a computer terminal to access information about logistics, products and deliveries. This information can include anything from understanding what’s about to arrive at the warehouse to performing stock checks, running damage reports and determining whether extra warehouse staff are needed. 

For employees on the shop floor, having to tap into a PC to find out product or delivery information for a customer is impractical and can be time-consuming. Putting a tablet or device in their hands instead provides all the data they need, in a clear and easy-to-understand format, so they can give the customer their full, undivided attention. 

Through its mainframe modernisation project, the supermarket has empowered its teams by giving them access to information from across their mainframe system, on any web browser or tablet and at any time. Providing easy access to the same up-to-date, accurate information means its staff can benefit from a seamless IT experience, while customers benefit from better service.

The retailer of the future

The era of platform-specific solutions is well and truly over. Today’s users deserve effortless integration with IT systems, no matter where they are or what device they’re using. What’s more, companies require all the information being accessed across these devices to be secured to the highest standard. Mainframes are the key to maintaining robust back-end processes and security for retailers, while newer software tools can be used to pull out the necessary data and build a web-based, user-friendly applications. 

These are testing times for our high street. For customer-obsessed retail brands, finding ways to attract consumers and regain sales is everything. To succeed in customer service and improve performance, retailers must look to the mainframe and the new software tools that will support their business for years to come. 

Guy Tweedale, Regional VP at Rocket Software

Image Credit: Zapp2Photo / Shutterstock