Retail Tech: Whose IT Is Tops, Who Needs to Restock

In a new report, Citi's influential retail analyst Deborah Weinswig takes a deep dive into retail IT shops--and offers up 2009's leaders (CVS, JCPenney) and laggards (BJ's, Costco). As for Wal-Mart? It's surprisingly somewhere in the middle of the pack.

By Thomas Wailgum
Thu, January 21, 2010

CIO — Citi's Deborah Weinswig is one of the top retail analysts in the business. She's the voice of Citi's retail investment research and analysis arm and knows the business inside and out—the meaning of private label and private equity, the relationship between troubled earnings and clearance-rack earrings, and the intricacies of both The GAP and GAAP.

In a January 2010 Citi report, Weinswig takes a deep dive into the technology departments (IT strategies, implementations and investments) of the leading U.S. retailers to determine who were the IT leaders in 2009 and who were the laggards that had plenty of room for improvement.

[Read CIO.com's How Wal-Mart Lost Its Technology Edge and Starbucks' Next-Generation CIO]

"In this challenging environment," she writes, "technology has become more important than ever as a way for retailers to drive top-line growth, margin improvement, lower costs and to deliver enhanced shopping experiences."

Weinswig created what she calls a "technology continuum" that offers a snapshot of how the broadlines (big-chain department stores), food and drug, and home improvement retailers "stack up alongside each other."

Citi Research and AnalysisSOURCE: Citi

As the table illustrates, here's how Weinswig ranked retail IT shops (in descending "leading to laggard" order): CVS (CVS), Walgreens, JCPenney, Target, Kohl's (KSS), Dollar General (DG), Lowe's (LOW), Kroger (KR), Nordstrom, Wal-Mart (WMT), Macy's (M), Saks (SKS), Home Depot (HD), Safeway, Supervalu (SVU), Family Dollar, BJ's and Costco (COST).

Weinswig dubs CVS the most technologically advanced company. Here's why:

While CVS is ahead of the retail industry in terms of technology, the company continues to implement new systems to improve efficiency in its stores and at the pharmacy. Specifically, beginning in 2008 and continuing in 2009, CVS has been rolling out its exclusive Consumer Engagement Engine, a system that focuses on finding the right Rx, for the right patient, at the right time. Given CVS's retail/PBM structure, the system will also flag the pharmacist for opportunities to lower costs, improve adherence and improve medication.

As for the warehouse clubs BJ's and Costco, Weinswig notes that they "are less advanced with respect to technology, but BJ's has been upgrading its sales and financial reporting systems to improve management decision-making, increase sales and lower costs."

Wal-Mart's position—sitting right in the middle of Weinswig's tech continuum—is somewhat surprising, given the retailing juggernaut's historical, vaunted position in retailing IT and supply chain circles and its legendary list of tech chiefs. In offering up some "expense concerns" relating to Wal-Mart's stock valuation, Weinswig includes "IT transformation initiatives."

However, she adds that "improved inventory management, a keener focus on merchandising across the store and increased global sourcing should drive higher profitability." And that's right in Wal-Mart IT's wheelhouse.

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