Peer just a year or two down the retail road, and the most exciting source of technological potential comes from the all-but-ignored pillar of digital signage.
This is not merely a multimedia ad displayer. It has the potential to interact with smartphones, smartcarts and contactless credit cards. This means targeted ads with audio that can only be heard by the intended shopper, a sophisticated 2-D barcode capability for allowing mobile shoppers to drill deep into a Web site as well as a system that can sharply increase the scope of not only CRM (customer relationship management) systems but anti-theft mechanisms as well.
So where are the retail IT leaders in all of this? Nowhere near, as IT isn't seriously involved in—and certainly not in charge of—most of the major retail digital signage deployments today.
Right there, in a Unix shell, is what's wrong with corporate IT departments today.
For years, I have watched digital signage toy with fascinating technology interactions, many of which have the potential to quickly move retail analysis and customer service to the next level. And yet I have been unable to find a single senior IT executive at a major retail chain who has said, "Me. I'm in charge of our digital signage efforts."
That task typically falls to marketing or store operations. While that's been going on, U.S. digital signage efforts have not progressed beyond serving ads.
This is a classic catch-22. IT administrators refuse to actively get involved until there's an undeniable reason they must, such as bandwidth usage that is crashing other systems or wireless integration that directly challenges credit card or other data security.
Because they refuse to get involved, the departments that take it over—store operations and marketing departments, typically—do what comes easiest to them. And around it goes.
Many IT departments still see themselves as one step removed from their help-desk roots, finding themselves uncomfortable with the strategic corporate role even as they aggressively push for it.
For years, companies have moved to having CIOs report into chief financial officers rather than CEOs. The move doesn't necessarily signal a deprioritization of technology issues, but it does say that CIOs often need to be thinking strategically.
For CIOs to get where they want to be, they must stop being content with being reactive. In the digital signage case, that means not waiting for a problem to happen that they must react to.
It also means not seeing themselves as merely a group that will solve problems when they crop up. IT leaders must look for ways they can push technology into other corners of the company, to be creative and to help CRM, security, payment and anything else.
If CIOs want to be seen as strategic, they need to start acting that way. Taking a good hard look at that TV screen on the pole holding up the roof is probably not a bad way to start.
Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesn't plan to stop any time soon. He can be reached at Evan.Schuman@ziffdavisenterprise.com.
To read earlier retail technology opinion columns from Evan Schuman, please click here.