In the third of our exclusive, cross-site vendor interviews from January’s NRF show in New York City, our Editor talks with Robert McKee and Andrew Dalziel of Info about the importance of trade shows, and the concept of “beautiful software” across PLM and ERP.
Ben Hanson: Infor have been exhibiting at NRF for several concurrent years now. How have you found this year’s show to be, and do you believe trade shows are still able to draw the right crowd?
Robert McKee, Global Fashion Industry Strategy Director (pictured right): While I do believe that physical trade shows in general are waning at the moment, I think they’re something that will see a resurgence in the future. I know that we’ve found this year’s NRF show to be the best for a number of years, and the sheer number and calibre of attendees has definitely surpassed our expectations.
Andrew Dalziel, Director of Industry and Product Marketing (pictured left): We’ve seen a lot of European people coming across for previous shows – and likely this year’s, too – so it’s important to remember than NRF doesn’t just have a US audience. As we’ve seen other shows disappear, it seems as though maybe everyone is starting to congregate around NRF. Although where we’ll go from here is a different matter…
RM: I think the handful of trade shows that continue to exist – whether it’s Magic or NRF, or the machinery shows that persist in Europe – will probably continue ad infinitum purely out of inertia. They’ll each become “the place” for the respective topics they cover.
AD: Fewer shows, but each more global, I think is the way we’re heading.
BH: Keeping to the topic of trade shows for a moment, do you think that somewhere like NRF is necessarily the best place to be exhibiting enterprise-level software?
RM: I think NRF and shows like it are a great place to make an initial contact. For the most part you won’t spend much time actually demonstrating at a show like this: you may do quick overviews and answer broad-brush questions, but generally you’re going to be skirting the tops of the mountains. And if what you do is what they’re looking for, you’ll move on from there and start to schedule proper demonstrations. From our experience this year, visitors truly seemed to be looking to buy, and we’re optimistic about a number of projects that might originate from our presence here.
BH: If we’re talking about overviews, am I right in thinking that you’re here to show a full range of solutions – almost an end-to-end, if you like?
AD: In some areas, such as fashion, we can go fully end to end. In other retail industries we have a lot of the components, like supply chain management, financial components and so on…
RM: Infor, as an organisation, has grown through acquisition. And a lot of those acquisitions were of organisations that already were an integral part of the retail framework. But when you grow through acquisition you wind up with pieces that are all over the place, and it wasn’t until Charles Phillips took over the organisation three or four years ago that we actually took a step back and asked ourselves, “what is it we really own here?”.
At that point there was a realisation that Infor had a lot to offer to the retail market. And more importantly that we had some 2,600 customers across our entire product range who were truly invested in us, and that their pedigrees were in retail.
BH: In terms of PLM, I’m sure our readers will be keen to know what you’re demonstrating here at the show.
RM: We offer fashion-specific PLM solutions that meet the needs of fashion designers and technical product developers. We have a strong pedigree and large customer base in the PLM space.
BH: And how have the past twelve months been for Infor from that point of view?
RM: For PLM the last year has been solid. We’ve been selling a lot of PLM solutions in the emerging parts of the global economy: India and China, for example.
Those markets are very fertile turf for us, with a lot of pent-up demand, and as they continue to evolve and grow their fashion and consumer industries, they’re becoming more willing to go out and invest in the right tools. The old strategy of simply hiring another hundred people to overcome a problem – a direct result of the low cost of labour in those areas – is no longer current, and our customers in emerging markets are willing to obtain the right solutions instead.
BH: Do those tend to be older retailers and brands waking up to what’s possible with modern technology, or are they new brands looking to compete against foreign imports?
RM: It’s a bit of both. In one situation, our client in China (which has a German parent) adopted PLM ahead of its parent company, because the need was there. And this is a company that’s been around for a very long time. But we also have the kind of start-ups you’re talking about.
AD: One thing that’s true almost worldwide is that a lot of companies think they have a PLM solution, when in fact they have an early PDM system. So there’s a great deal of opportunity there as well.
I think that whole perception of enterprise software has changed – not just within PLM, but for ERP, and really all IT applications. A few years ago these kinds of projects were owned and driven by the IT departments, and while they no doubt continue to play a key role in things, these projects are now driven by the business.
BH: I suppose there’s still some education to be done both in those markets and further afield about what the difference between PDM and PLM is.
RM: There’s a lot of education to be done, and a lot of out-dated mindsets to be shifted. You have a paradigm shift on your hands because a lot of the people who created the PDM products are actually still working with them today – there’s a lot of pride in that kind of authorship, and as a result people are resistant to change.
“I created this spreadsheet program, and this is what I’m going to use”, they’ll sometimes say. Or, “Excel is my PLM system”.
AD: Believe it or not, Excel really is PLM’s biggest competitor.
BH: I can certainly believe it. It’s easy to forget that some extremely high-calibre brands use Excel for a host of things, making it the incumbent that a PLM vendor such as Infor comes up against. How do you overcome that?
AD: We see a lot of it being about empowering the creative, technical and commercial people to work together more effectively. That’s something it’s very difficult for a spreadsheet to do with anything approaching true usability. So a lot of what we’ve been working on recently has been around the concept of “beautiful software” – giving people a more attractive, more usable, and all-round better software experience.
BH: That really, for me at least, reflects the fact that PLM hasn’t been an “IT project” for some time now. Vendors shouldn’t just be trying to deliver value for a select few in the IT department, since PLM is a truly business-level initiative.
AD: I think that whole perception of enterprise software has changed – not just within PLM, but for ERP, and really all IT applications. A few years ago these kinds of projects were owned and driven by the IT departments, and while they no doubt continue to play a key role in things, these projects are now driven by the business. They stem from business cases, and they’re owned by process owners.
BH: With that being the case, do you often find people approach you looking for one of the big enterprise systems – PLM and ERP – and then realising they actually need both?
AD: That’s what we commonly see, yes. And that’s why we talk about “concept to consumer”, which really means trying to streamline processes and shorten lifecycles. That’s where Infor plays particularly well.
BH: What specifically does Infor have planned for the coming year?
AD: We’re continuing to invest in PLM, which is absolutely a vital strategic area for us. We’re also talking here at the show about Rhythm, which is our new B2B e-commerce platform, and is another thing that we see becoming a big focus for us. Obviously the past few years have seen a lot of advancements and uptake in B2C online platforms, but we believe that B2B e-commerce is also going to take off.
One of the key differentiators for us when it comes to delivering things like this is that we’re tightly coupled in the back-end to ERP. So our developments aren’t just about the front end – they’re about trying also to optimise supply chain execution.
We haven’t neglected the front end, though, and as part of that e-commerce platform we’re also offering the services of our New York-based design agency, Hook & Loop, to help design and set up the actual websites that will be built upon it and hosted on our cloud services, designed to deliver the sort of 24/7 accessibility required for e-commerce.
BH: That’s a key thing really, the accessibility of commerce. People have been talking about omni-channel retail for a few years now, but I think they’re perhaps only now starting to cotton on to the fact that truly modern retail experiences are impossible to deliver without informed investments in technology.
AD: I think that’s absolutely critical, yes. In fact it’s one of the key business issues we see for fashion companies and retailers today. E-commerce is important, but it’s just one area of a true omni-channel strategy.
BH: People talk about consumers wanting multiple ways of accessing the products and the “experience” of a single brand, but do you think the same is true of what brands and retailers are looking for from technology? Do they need the same access to a consistent experience?
RM: Absolutely. Every organisation needs to be acutely aware not only of their brand identity, but also their brand concentration – where their brand acceptance lies. Branding by its very nature is a community of interest… a social community, and the rule of thumb is that you’re aware of the brand and a fan of their brand, then you’re a part of their social community.
Far too few organisations are taking advantage of that.
I have to admit that I object to the term “omni-channel”, since it seems like a buzzword that was suddenly applied to every e-commerce platform. In fact, the right mix of channels is whatever’s required to get the right product in front of whomever your consuming public might be – wherever they might be. You see some really innovate takes on this, too: I believe it was either Rip Curl or Billabong that recently started packaging board shorts in a tube and selling them at vending machines in high-end resorts. And why not?
AD: Absolutely. Anywhere there’s demand. The core thing is to make sure you have your ERP system properly integrated so that you can actually deliver that consistency of experience.
There are a number of retailers who up until recently have dealt with brands that have now left them a little bit behind, since the brands have developed their own retail channels. And this is without even thinking about third party retailers, through whom brands are going to want to try and ensure the same experience that the consumer would get from buying directly from their online store.
RM: Overall we’re going to see a lot of change in retail – particularly in what Andrew’s talking about, in scenarios where you have retailers who’ve been purely brand-driven but who will now start to do things very differently and develop their own brands. Conversely, you’ll find a lot of brands who will no longer want to go through national retailers at all, and will want to set up their own retail channels or go through the kind of third parties we mentioned.
Sadly, I think that since the invention of the term omni-channel we’ve seen far less invention when it comes to new avenues to market.
AD: I think that’s the big question about omni-channel: is it really multiple channels to market, or are we really just talking about one channel? That one channel is the brand to the consumer, and everything in between is just a vehicle to deliver it.
RM: As soon as you start putting a label on something, you start limiting the possibilities of what it can be – when in fact they might be unlimited.
BH: It certainly seems to me as though we’re just coining buzzwords to describe a modern retail paradigm.
RM: That’s exactly it. And retail isn’t necessarily what we automatically think of it as being. It’s not necessarily a bricks and mortar shop – it’s whatever it takes to connect you, the consumer, with the product you’re looking for. And we all know that traditional retailers are the some of the ones doing the poorest job of making the transition to this new approach, because they’re so heavily invested in their existing infrastructure.
BH: We touched on this earlier, but I wanted to frame it as clearly as possible. Is that modern retail experience impossible to deliver without investing in technology?
AD: I believe so, yes, because it’s all about speed.
RM: It is, absolutely. I read an article a year or so ago explaining that Macy’s [New York’s largest department store] was going to have to spend millions of dollars to remove barriers in their e-commerce software – barriers they’d added to it in the first place – that stood between different inventories.
They had hard-coded it so that users of the web side of their business could not have any access to or view of the inventory they had in stores. Now, if anything, retailers want to make inventory as accessible as possible. Their objective today isn’t to look solely at KPIs – it’s to hook demand to supply.
BH: There’s a obvious crossover there between the potential of modern retail and the power of business intelligence. Retailers need absolutely seamless and accurate insight in order to perform at that level.
RM: As Andrew said, your channels should always be the interaction with your consumer, not all the infrastructure that supports that. The infrastructure should provide you with the tools and the insight to make that work.
These are all things that we’re taking into consideration as we build out our product offering to serve the retail industry even better than we do already.
BH: Is there anything else you see, either globally or regionally, as an emerging trend for the coming year?
RM: It’s important to remember that the world is not made up of countries all operating in the same way. So, when it comes to emerging trends, you see different things in Europe and the US than you do in Asia.
Western Europe, the US and Australia are all pretty similar when it comes to their view of interaction with the consumer and evolution of retail. Where you see what I’d classify as “emerging trends” are in the emerging economies and the BRICS countries, where you have this kind of hyperactivity relative to consumerism. Until now there was a mandate not to consume, whereas today those regions have a situation where people are eager to buy.
We recently did an article for a luxury publication, and in it I talked about how companies are selling more luxury goods today in airports in Asia than they are anywhere else on earth. Why? Because you have these aspirational consumers who are flying into Macau and maybe making a win or a loss at the casinos, and on the way home they indulge in some truly luxury product – something that by definition they don’t need.
AD: The key markets are certainly moving over time, and sourcing destinations are following suit. The one continuous thread throughout all that is: how do you continue to do things faster? How do you respond, and make sure you can satisfy the consumer’s desires and wishes, wherever they are?
BH: One final thing I wanted to talk about was your mentioned earlier of “beautiful software”. I know this is something Infor has placed significant emphasis on recently, but I was curious as to how that came about? UI (or UX) often seems to take a back seat in this industry.
AD: It’s something that’s been going on for some time now. In several industries – and certainly fashion was amongst them – we were being told that our software was absolutely fantastic, functionally speaking, but that it wasn’t always clear how to access that functionality.
We’ve been working on steadily improving our user experience for nearly seven years now, but what we’ve done recently is to accelerate that and make a huge investment in user experience design. Not just making things look better, but with a view to improving productivity.
RM: A number of years ago, AMR (which was later acquired by Gartner) wrote about the M3 ERP software. They called it the strongest ERP solution on the market – functionally the best – but they also wrote that it had all the beauty of a Volvo.
BH: That’s an assessment you could spin one of two ways. It could be quite damning if you think about it…
RM: It could, but then again people continued to buy Volvos. They were (and are) some of the safest cars on the road. Are they beautiful? Not so much. But a Volvo is what it is, and that was true of our products. We had teams who wrote extremely functional and industry-appropriate software, but at the time they perhaps didn’t care quite as much about how it looked or how people interacted with it.
So changing that approach is something that we’ve really focused on over the last three years. But, it’s also been driven by the proliferation of methods that exist for people to interact with software. You have iOS, Android, Windows 8 [on Surface tablets] which all reside on this huge array of potential input devices, and the big question is how do you deal with that?
AD: It becomes about personalising and contextualising the information. So you aren’t just creating applications for specific tasks, but you’re allowing users access to centralised information and intelligence so that they can collaborate.