Gartner: The Biggest Retail IT Headache To Be Social Networks

As is apparently required by law, all of the big technology think-tanks at this time of year start making their 2010 predictions, and Gartner's certainly not one to be left out. So we reached out to Gartner's retail technology mastermind, Jeff Roster, to get his take on how his company's Top Ten list of tech areas speaks to retail CIOs. But Roster surprised us—as he annoyingly tends to do—by avoiding the obvious choices and zeroing in on social networking.

Sure, social networking is a huge retail trend, but retail IT? "You don’t need IT to Tweet, but you sure will be buying an awful lot of software in 2011 that will analyze all this unstructured information," Roster said. "Now imagine a year down the road when I can go into a retailer and start tagging my likes and dislikes on any given product. It is just mind-boggling how rapidly software will be evolving within the next 5 years."

Ahhh, but this assumes that retailers will get smart about Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and YouTube and start automating tons of data so that it can be poured into the social sites directly. Marketing will certainly be able to justify dollars to use social networking, but will IT get the funding? Will CFOs be comfortable spending tech dollars on social sites? Roster argued that the numbers will eventually give them little choice, and he said he expects the intensity to increase sharply in 2010.

"There are 300 million people in the U.S. and 85 percent of them have access to the Internet. It takes three minutes to get a free Twitter account that lets you share your precious thoughts with the world. I can have 10 followers and, with the hashtag #gartnersym, I can talk to an audience of thousands in the Gartner world. The impact is staggering when you think about it. I think cloud sourcing or the retailers themselves will create their own hashtags," Roster said. "Now if that retailer ticks me off, I can tell the world about it. That’s not even talking about re-Tweeting. This is very disruptive to folks trained in managing the brand's image. This could go supernova in 2010. Mobile will follow a much more predictable technology adoption path."

Because Roster brought it up, what about mobile? It may take a more predictable path next year. But that won't make it, in his view, any less explosive.

"I’ve been hearing about mobile commerce for the last 10 years. To be honest, it was a lot of slideware. But I’ve always said that retailers don’t adopt technology when the vendor community says it’s ready. They adopt when there’s a really compelling reason," Roster said. "I believe it’s here, retailers are embracing it. Many more will be."

Other bits and pieces from our predictions conversation with Roster:

  • Cloud Computing
    "It's still quite early in retail. But there are several retailers (small, to be sure) that have completely embraced the cloud," he said. "2010 will be a time for retail to get their arms around cloud. Uptake should be fast and furious in 2011 and beyond."
  • Advanced Analytics
    "This is nothing new for retail. Every retailer has had piles of data going back to the dawn of time. But this is not talking about your daddy’s analytics. This next generation analyzes yes, but it also predicts," he said. "The key here is actionable advice at the speed of data, which is now nearly real time. This is one of the bright spots in the retail IT landscape this past year and will be bright into the future."
  • Mobile Security
    "On the retail front, think about all those mobile devices soon to be in the hands of consumers who will want to do something with them. Chief merchants and marketers will be increasingly pressuring CEOs to give more access to inventory, CRM and product info to the masses," Roster said. "Everybody is happy except the person responsible for making sure all this information exchange happens over secure networks. It’s a growth area, to say the least."