The R-Tech Era Begins

The phrase "high-tech" entered the national lexicon in the 1960s as the computer and electronics industries took off. Before long, it became a synonym for anything modern and over time various sectors of the economy adopted the "tech" suffix to signify their advanced state of digital affairs. Curiously, the retail industry was not among them even though technology was having a huge impact on retail long before the advent of e-commerce in the late '90s.

This situation is about to change in a big way. The Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) is on a mission to promote adoption of the word "r-tech" and in early March launched an initiative branded as the (R)Tech Innovation Center at its Arlington, Va., headquarters. The Center has two broad goals: help retailers navigate the industry's transformation through innovation and spur usage of the word r-tech throughout the retail innovation ecosystem. To accomplish those objectives, RILA decided it would be helpful to have a common definition:

"R-tech describes the convergence of retail and technology. An r-tech company embodies the strongest values of both those industries — global and local, nimble, and entrepreneurial — to delight profoundly empowered consumers."

That definition, the creation of the Center and the overall strategy to promote acceptance and usage of the word r-tech is the result of an extensive project begun last summer. RILA's executive committee in recognition of the massive disruption underway had a long conversation about innovation and put the organization's staff to work on figuring out what it means and the role to be played by a trade association in an industry undergoing fundamental changes. Top staff members held countless meetings with retailers' chief innovation officers, venture capital firms, entrepreneurs, futurists, innovation consultancies and they spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley. The result was development of an innovation agenda for the (R)Tech Innovation Center focused on five areas:

  • Conducting authoritative research, retail innovation benchmarking, trends, and analysis.
  • Connecting retailers to innovative technologies, companies, ventures, and other models in the U.S. and globally.
  • Fostering innovation by helping create cultures where it can flourish.
  • Activating innovation by assisting retailers in the process of moving emerging technologies, business models, or use cases from their innovation function into the broader business.
  • Building a reputation for retail in innovation hubs and with policymakers and retail talent.

As initiatives are pursued in each area, the reputational impact could be the most significant. Historically, the retail industry was disadvantaged when recruiting talent because it wasn't viewed as the most progressive or lucrative place to pursue a career. That's unfortunate because many of those in the industry know otherwise having begun their careers in entry level jobs. Making sure r-tech is part of the conversation about the retail industry will help alter perceptions over time.

What's also going to help is there is serious firepower aligned on the r-tech mission. Global consultancy Accenture is the Center's founding innovation partner, and two key leadership groups — the (R)Tech Advisory Council and the (R)Tech Innovation Network — are loaded with executive talent. The Council will function like a board of directors with inaugural members including representatives from AutoZone, Best Buy, Coca-Cola, Dick's Sporting Goods, Energizer Holdings, Facebook, Foot Locker, GameStop, Google, Kroger, Lowe's, QVC, Target, VF Corporation, Walgreens and Westfield. The Innovation Network group's role will be more external facing to connect retail executives with retail-focused VCs, incubators and accelerators. It will include representatives from Andreessen Horowitz, Bain Capital Ventures, Commerce Ventures, Greylock Partners, GSVlabs, Shoptalk, Techstars and XRC Labs.

Technology has played an important role in the retail industry for a long time. Well before the digital revolution, the most successful retailers were the earliest adopters of new technology solutions to manage their operations and serve customers. They still are and now we have something to call it.

Mike Troy

[email protected]