Nineties Nostalgia, Retail IT Style

I recently had the opportunity to engage in a little 1990s nostalgia by attending a package concert featuring a variety of popular bands from that decade such as Gin Blossoms, Smash Mouth and Sugar Ray. It was a chance to envelop myself in the sights and sounds of a bygone era that stays close to my heart as what some call a “Gen Xer.”

This brief sojourn to the past got me thinking about how in addition to being an influential decade in music and popular culture, the ’90s also marked an important time in retail IT. While some retail IT innovations of the era have fizzled out like denim shorts for guys, others still hang around in one form or another today, like tattoos on white collar professionals. Let’s take a quick gander at a few retail IT innovations from the days of grunge and flannel and see how they remain relevant today.

Building Your Network
The 1990s saw client/server or network computing — where computing devices running on linked individual servers shared common resources — take precedence over traditional mainframe computing where all devices on a network ran on the same central server. Client/server offered advantages including faster processing, greater network redundancy and easier distribution of a network over a broader area.

Today’s efforts to virtualize infrastructures to enable even faster and stronger processing that can handle volumes of Big Data and global network distribution with minimal overhead all build upon the original aims and capabilities of client/server computing.

Knowing Your Suppliers
Retailer-supplier collaboration was a hot topic in the 1990s. VICS introduced the CPFR model and retailers and suppliers finally began collaborating on basic activities like ordering extra inventory for products with scheduled manufacturers’ promotions. Supply chain collaboration has slowly improved since that time but most retailers still do not closely collaborate with their suppliers.

Advances in social and mobile communications and virtual infrastructures (see above) make sharing information with suppliers easier than ever before. The main barriers are cultural issues regarding mistrust of supply chain partners and a desire to keep proprietary data in-house. To maximize the potential of supplier relationships, retailers need to leave these apprehensions back in the ’90s where they belong.

Retailing like the Good Old Days
Of course, the most revolutionary retail IT development during the Clinton administration was the advent of e-commerce. In its early days, e-commerce was touted as a return to the “good old days” of retailing when a customer could walk into their favorite neighborhood store and the clerk would know exactly what they wanted to buy without asking.

Doubt remains whether customer service in days of yore was ever quite so rosy, but there is no doubt that despite advances in customer tracking, targeting and personalization, modern omni-channel commerce still has not totally fulfilled this promise. By combining data such as customer location, time of day/week/year, purchase/browsing history, social media activity and other personal and historic information, retailers can make highly personalized offers that serve precise customer needs at the moment of purchase decision and take all customer activity across all channels into account.

Anything less and instead of going back to the “good old days” you’re still basically stuck in the ’90s. Not that the ’90s were a bad place to be, but when was the last time you saw a Caesar haircut?

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