Canadian Tire’s CTO has last laugh on ex-boss

Eugene Roman offers an inside look at a system that may show how machine-to-machine (M2M) is evolving in retail

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Canadian Tire M2M

Eugene Roman started thinking about smart watches long before Samsung’s Galaxy Gear and Apple’s rumoured iWatch, back when he was working at Nortel and writing a white paper that a senior executive completely ridiculed.

“The senior vice-president of the unit, which was called Advanced Communication, marked (the white paper) in red pen with the words, ‘What idiot wrote this?’” Roman, now the chief technology officer at Canadian Tire, recalled at the M2M Canada Conference produced by the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) in Toronto last week.

“In some respects he was correct, because Gartner had said there was no market for mobile devices. They were thinking about four-pound, five pound phones that would take half a day to install. They forgot about miniaturization,” he added. “In the end, I should have said (instead of wristwatches), what we used to communicate would be on your hip, because that’s where the device landed. The question is, who was more right versus who was more wrong?”

To Roman, the future of machine-to-machine (M2M) communications is equally difficult to forecast with any accuracy. That doesn’t mean Canadian Tire is waiting around to find out, though. According to Roman, the retailer recently went live with a cybernetic system that monitors each one of its more than 1,700 stores to better understand how customers are behaving inside them.

Related: The M2M problem that could scare IT departments off

Called RedEye and housed principally at a location in Winnipeg, the Canadian Tire system “allows us to do things digitally in our corporation as well with our customers that we never thought possible,” Roman told the crowd. “We can track if they decide to use Wi-Fi in our stores. We will be able to see where you are in the store. As you walk through the store, we’ll be able to see where you are traversing. We don’t want to know who you are; we just want to know where you are and what you are touching on the ‘smart’ shelf.”

That kind of intelligence will allow Canadian Tire do a better job of stocking the right products in the best possible location, manage its inventory and a host of other tasks, Roman said.

“M2M can change the geography. It can do things that getting on a plane can’t,” he said. “Inside that distribution centre machines talk to machines all the time. No human can control that.”

Of course, M2M is still a relatively young area, and Internet of Things — where machines  talk to machines as well as human beings — is even more nascent. Canadian Tire’s approach is proof that firms here don’t always need to be laggards but can use competitive pressure to continuously improve customer service, optimize for the omni-channel and automate key processes through thoughtful application of next-generation technology.

Roman suggested IT professionals dream big — his influence for the smart watch was Dick Tracy comic strips — and focus on what’s possible rather than get mired in possible challenges.

“Know which are the if questions versus the when,” he suggested. Either way, it’s man, not machines, that the answers will most likely come from.

More on what’s in store: Download the MultiChannel Retailing Key Initiative Overview

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