By Alan Osrin

The major technology focus for retailers in the year ahead will be the retail website. At a time when the industry is beset by low confidence and daily reports of poor performance, retailers appear to be looking to boost their online presence to get closer to customers and to obtain a competitive advantage.

It's a move that is largely being driven by growing consumer demand for online sales and service, and global competition for the consumer dollar. While the opportunities for physical expansion are limited for most retailers, a well-thought-out website offers a cost-effective way to reach a wider circle of consumers, moving beyond local geographic constraints.  It offers greater consumer convenience and the potential to deliver an improved, more personalised customer experience.

Beyond the consumer benefits, a website can also provide the retailer with extremely valuable data about what customers want, their buying patterns and the ways in which consumers interact with the store or site. This ‘big data’ can be used to support future business and buying decisions, to inform marketing campaigns, increase revenue and can help the business to become more competitive.

The other area of technology that is gaining attention within the retail sector right now is mobility.

Mobility has been one of the biggest business technology trends of the past 12 months.  Companies across a wide range of industries are turning to mobile tools and technologies in a bid to tackle productivity issues head on. While other industries are focusing on the adoption of staff and workplace mobility initiatives; retailers, where staff must be on the premises to serve customers; such systems are of little interest.

Instead, the only important mobility technologies for retailers are mobile-enabled websites and mobile apps, both of which fit with the current online focus and offer potential benefit to customers.

Retail businesses are almost eight times more likely than other businesses to offer all their services via an app and more than twice as likely to have a mobile or tablet optimised website.

Among retailers who don't already have a mobile-optimised website, one quarter plan to implement such a site within the next two or more years.

This suggests that the majority of retailers see value in a mobile-optimised site, but many plan to wait for a couple of years, perhaps to focus on their main website, before taking action.

Despite the interest and clear preferences in technologies, not every retailer plans to invest.  In fact, just over half of all retailers say they won't be spending on technology in the next 12 months.  If this is true, we can expect to see some subtle shifts in the industry.

Retailers who are willing to invest the time and money to develop or upgrade for a strong, professional online presence will benefit from improved customer communication. Whether offering a standard website, a mobile-enabled site, a mobile app or all three technologies, these retailers will be seen as more responsive, more accessible and more convenient for customers.

Ten years ago a store could turn its back on the online environment and there would be little impact on the business. 

Today it's different. Consumers expect their product and service providers to be online.  They want to engage, find information and potentially transact at any time of day or night, weekday or weekend. If they can't, they'll go elsewhere.

Alan Osrin is managing director Sage Software Australia, which is “the leading global supplier of business management solutions to small and medium-sized business”, according to a company statement.

Alan Osrin is the managing director of Sage Software Australia.