2019 Q&A: Stephen Gill on tech

CEO and CTO of VME, a software company that works extensively with UK retail co-operatives

How was 2019 for your organisation?

It’s been a busy year for us with the highlight being the rollout of our IntelliStore epos system across Southern Coop. This was a collaborative project with Southern Coop and now means that we support 44% of the UK’s independent co-operative retail societies. I passionately believe that increasing this support is not just good for VME, but, by having an independent and robust co-operative platform, it is also good for the sector as a whole. I say this because it protects its independence and strengthens the whole movement against competitive risks from outsiders, like Amazon. However, I know there’s still more to do and so, pleased as we are with 2019, we have more to do in 2020.

What technological changes have impacted retail co-ops over the last year?

 Interestingly, we’ve seen evidence this year that shoppers in the UK are moving away from self-checkouts, and “scan as you go” mobile apps, favouring an efficient till experience instead; this is in contrast to the US.
We think the learning from this isn’t that shoppers don’t just want innovation in scanning technologies, but instead want a great shopping experience overall. For retailers, this means having the right blend of technology, products and people culminating in an excellent customer service experience. 

 What are the challenges ahead / how could they be dealt with in 2020?

With the recent election it seems that we can expect a newly invigorated desire to ‘get Brexit done’. No doubt this will throw up some operational issues for our customers and so we will all need to be ready to deal with these issues quickly. We’ll therefore be staying close to our customers in 2020 to make sure we can support them through this change. 

However, looking beyond 2020, the challenge that keeps me awake at night is the one that comes from ever more aggressive and innovative competitors such as Amazon. We know they have deep pockets and a proven ability to innovate quickly and disrupt complacent business models. As a co-operative community we need to be more action orientated and to stop working in silos. Instead we should come together as one movement with a clear action focused approach to this new dynamic. If we don’t, then I’m concerned that over the next five years the movement will see significant reactive consolidation and defensive merger activity.