Pity the Retail IT Pioneer

Opinion: What's more dangerous than being the last to deploy a new technology? Frighteningly enough, suggests Evan Schuman, it's often being the first.

Historically, the two most difficult technology decisions involve migration. Put simply: when to get into a technology/platform and when to get out.

A senior Best Buy executive this week gave a much needed reminder that while exit/entrance issues get all the headlines, its the detail-ridden implementation/execution issues that usually decide success or failure.

/zimages/7/28571.gifTo read about Best Buys RFID "go slow" strategy, click here.

Theres no mystery why getting into an unproven technology requires careful thought, but unless the technology is homegrown, the retail industry is rarely the first to the plate. Even Wal-Marts aggressive stance on RFID happened after others segments—such as the military—fairly well established that it was safe terrain.

Exiting at the right time is also well-understood, although that requires more guts. To transition off of a functional technology while its still working is scary. Witness the number of retail POS systems that are more than 20 years old. But the risk there is to be the last retailer left holding obsolete technology and equipment. Had you gotten out one year earlier, you could have perhaps sold a lot of it to even slower companies and purchased enough spare parts to make an orderly transition on your timetable. Once the vendor withdraws and youre one of the last holdouts, you pretty much have to transition immediately and write off your equipment (or ditch it for pennies at eBay) and pay whatever the new vendors have the nerve to charge. The fear of being the last retail IT exec with obsolete systems is a true motivator.

But thats pretty much well-understood. What Bob Willett, executive vice president of operations for Best Buy, discussed was the risk and potential delights to be had when decididng the exact method to transition in and deploy.

Willetts points surrounded the Fortune 100 retailers announcement that was making a very solid and public commitment to RFID. No surprise there. But Willetts candor about the road again was intriguing.

Best Buy—along with everyone else in retail—understands that RFID is going to happen and that its going to take years before item-level tagging happens. But what should retailers do with RFID? he asked.

Whats going to make the difference in RFID implementations is not going to be speed. Indeed, one could make the statistical argument that the first retailer to fully deploy will more than likely accomplish little beyond making the mistakes for others to avoid. Thats not to say that being the last is desirable, either.

Next Page: An avalanche of technology is making the choices more difficult.