by Noah D'Mello

Technology has accelerated change in retailing: Vidya Laxman, Tesco Bengaluru

Sep 29, 2015
AnalyticsBig DataCareers

Vidya Laxman, Director-Technology at Tesco Bengaluru, talks shop and tells how Tesco’s technology, which is solely handled from the IT capital of the country, is integral in the changing face of the retail industry.

The face of retailing has changed over the years. Gone are the days when we used to buy groceries from the stores. Everybody wants to shop in the luxury of their homes, and this is true not only in developed countries but also across the globe. To enable this luxury for the customers, technology has to take the driver’s seat. The task may be daunting, especially when you are Tesco, which has more than 7,500 stores across two continents in 12 countries. Tesco Bengaluru is the only technology and retail operations centre that caters to Tesco’s growth and presence globally.

Vidya Laxman, Director-Technology at Tesco Bengaluru, said, “Without infrastructure or technology, the change wouldn’t have happened as fast as it has.”

Laxman said that technology has always been a part of Tesco’s growth even when it employed the brick-and-mortar model. However, in this day and age, where customers are walking with “the most powerful device in their hands,” leveraging technology and sustaining the existing systems to fulfil the requirements is imperative.

Solely handling technology operations for one of the world’s leading grocery stores is a Herculean task. Laxman said sustenance of systems as well as constant innovation are among the major challenges. However, with more than 6,500 employees, she said that, similar to other organizations, attrition is also a major challenge in the organization.

“Because we give a lot importance to domain expertise, building the knowledge base and retaining good talent is challenging,” she said. When they come on board, “cascading down the knowledge base is also a challenge,” she added.

One cannot understand the technological needs of the customer if one is coding from thousands of miles away. She said that employees are sent to the store locations and experience the job at hand, which gives them “a better understanding of what they really need to do to give customers a seamless experience.” 

“We have a lot of responsibility because Tesco has been there for over a period of time. We have a huge market share. If you were to go to the UK, Tesco is more like a community. Somebody or the other has worked or would work in Tesco,” she said.

IoT and Big Data setting up shop

The Internet of Things and Big Data are being employed almost in every industry vertical—the retail industry is not spared. Laxman said that with the advent of these two phenomena, a reduction in wastage across distribution centres and increase in operational efficiency are achieved.

Tesco has distribution centres which are large, with almost half of the area filled with perishables. With this vast amount of content, the retail giant has to join hands with technology to reduce wastage. “For example, we have sensors that send alerts when a refrigerator’s temperature is falling. Immediately and remotely, we can take care of such problems,” she said.

When you collect such enormous data, analyzing it is the next plausible thing to do. Laxman, who also heads the analytics team at Tesco Bengaluru, said data has helped them in consumer analytics, in-store analytics, social media analytics as well as competitive analytics.

In an online retail industry, one of the major challenges is ensuring customer loyalty. Tesco uses data as one of the levers and provides recommendations to customers to give an easier shopping experience, among many other loyalty programs.

“We do not want to have too many marketing plans; we do not want to confuse our customer, we want to keep our marketing strategy simple and see to it that we give them what they want,” she added.

Laxman said that even though the stores in the UK are the major contributors, they do not differentiate when they provide technological solutions to their customers in other countries. “We try to create a model that is similar to the one in the UK, such as the same supply chain system, retail merchandising systems, and pricing systems. We do not differentiate on the basis of where our customer is located,” she said.

‘There hasn’t been a drastic change for women in technology’

In addition to being a leader in the information technology sector, Laxman boasts another feather on her cap—as an advocate for women in technology. Laxman, a core member and former chairperson of the Anita Borg Institute, a social enterprise which grew out of the digital community for women, said that over the decades, there hasn’t been a drastic change for women in technology.

She feels that diversity in workforce was never given so much importance. “When I started 20 years ago, I was the only woman among 20 developers. Now, this number might be 2 women to 20 men,” she said.

Laxman said that even though men have become more responsible and understanding, she still feels that women have to bear most of the familial responsibilities, which is a reason why women drop out of the tech industry early on in their careers.

Another reason that Laxman feels is causing an early exit for women is the work culture. “There are some managers who say that you have to come here at this time… Because of this, women colleagues many times don’t make use of the benefits provided and don’t ask for things,” she said.

To retain women employees, organizations have to understand the needs of women. “Within Tesco we recognize the importance of women and diversity. We don’t believe that flexibility of hours is a benefit, but we truly believe that it is our culture.”

She says that the leaders and management should be on the same page as women. “When thought leaders make statements and work toward it, women can give a greater contribution to technology,” she signs off.