iRexM3 is an innovative retail marketing technology solution, solving a major pain point for retailers – dynamic ticketing and pricing.

We have been following the evolution and growth of the iRexM3 journey over the last couple of years. In this interview I catch up with Mark Thornton, Vestcom UK’s Head of Digital Marketing, on what has been a year of exciting change.


Sophie: Mark, before we launch into iRexM3, can you give us some context of the current retail environment?

Mark: Retail at the moment is facing a perfect storm. You’ve got legacy retail – huge High Street estates – with broken models of retail. Often there is a disconnect between the people who run retail, and what’s happening on the ground floor.

Strikingly there is a dramatic change in customer behaviour. Customers are highly vocal if they have bad experiences – leveraged through social media – coupled with behaviours such as showrooming and the general shift to the digital arena.

Against this backdrop, you’ve got the inexorable march of ‘digital giants’ such as Amazon, Alibaba or JD, who are increasingly underpinning the world in which we live and work. Just to top things off there’s a lot of political uncertainty at the moment and a broken rental and rate system.

You could argue that nothing is changing as fast as retail. If you are a traditional physical retailer, you have no option but to change – and change fast. It’s shocking how quickly retailers are evaporating.

There is a ‘hollowing out’ in the middle of retail. You have retailers who’ve really leaped ahead with their digital transformation (or are digital natives). Then you’ve got some niche players who have got strong defensible USPs. But it’s the speed of change that is so dramatic.


Sophie: What do you think can retailers do to survive?

Mark: There is a bit of a paradox at the heart of traditional retail, because the vast majority of retail sales still come through physical shops. That’s not going away anytime soon. Because people are realising that sitting in your own bedroom, on an app is not exactly life enhancing!

Interestingly, although it’s tempting to believe the ‘death of retail’ narrative, as it turns out, physical retail is actually the ‘killer app’ for brands that need to communicate with customers.

A lot of new retailers are opening on the high street.

You can only shout and scream on social media and compete in a hellishly competitive environment for so long; the only way to compete is to differentiate yourself, and what better way against a slew of pure-play digital competitors than to be out in the real world.

Retail isn’t dying – it’s changing.

If you want to be a retail winner it’s all about the customer and the customer experience. If you please the customer and give them a good experience then they’re going to generate word of mouth and spread your messages online for you. Customer loyalty is about driving consistent and positive word of mouth over the long term.

But there are three problems if you’re a legacy retailer.

Firstly, company structure often works against you. Worryingly a large number of retailers have execs with ‘digital’ in their title. In retail, digital isn’t a separate element of your business – it needs to be integrated.

The second thing is change is happening so quickly. Companies have this terrible dilemma – they need to change and deliver new technology, but often they come from a company culture that’s risk averse, or worse, they’re under pressure to ‘do something’ – and that can lead to bad decisions.

Thirdly, everyone is watching. If you’re going to try stuff, you’re going to break stuff. And this happens in the full glare of your customers and your stakeholders, and that can really damage your brand.


Sophie: What are the benefits iRexM3 brings to retailers and how does it address these pain-points?

Mark: iRex M3 seeks to address all of these issues in a single technology platform.

We recognise that physical retail is the ‘killer app’, and that really means the shelf edge.

A customer standing at a shelf, looking at a product armed with a mobile in their hand is arguably the biggest Information Network ever developed to provide information to somebody looking to make a purchase. It’s still the most important, valuable piece of retail estate.

iRex delivers your ‘A-Game’ to the shelf edge.

It could be a simple printed ticket, a permanent shelf, a pop up store, a screen, or a very complex marketing message with a lot of promotional information. iRex M3 provides pricing and promotion information right to the customer – consistently and compliantly wherever they are. We refer to this as ‘seamless pricing in real time’.

We designed iRexM3 to allow you to rapidly deploy, test and evolve.

It’s a cloud based system so you can deploy it to a single shelf and test it, or a single category, a store or even an entire estate. This dramatically lowers the risk.

We’re technology agnostic and totally flexible. Whether printed or a digital shelf strip, or an ESL electronic shelf label, or a screen, it will deliver the same information and benefits, and it doesn’t matter if you change your mind.


Sophie: Would you say your platform fosters confidence?

Mark: When you have consistent and compliant pricing messages everybody’s happy.  It delivers from the customer perspective and from the organisational perspective.

The customer has more confidence because they won’t get to the till and find that the price is wrong. Customers also expect to see social proof – such as reviews – which give them added confidence, or information to help with the purchasing decision. Delivering this to your shelf edge, perhaps surprisingly, gives your sales people more confidence, and makes them more effective.

The technology enables change management because you can start small and recruit ‘champions’ in the organisation who have an experience that can be shared.

Sometimes big digital transformation projects can fail because they become so complex, and it takes so long to feel the benefits.

These day we’re all incredibly cynical about software claims. Retailers don’t want to do another ‘big bang’ technical deployment. iRex M3 is agile and allows you to adapt and scale.


Sophie: I understand the last 12 months have been a bit of a whirlwind, can you tell me a little more?

Mark: A year ago, we were still Integrated Retail. We were a very small team who had developed this platform, and had started to deploy amongst some very big retailers.

We also had a number of strategic relationships with partner organisations – for example this time last year, we announced a strategic relationship with Epson, as well as partnerships with people like HP.

We had also developed partnerships with signage providers and technology providers – one of them was a company called Vestcom. Based in the US, Vestcom is the leading provider of technology enabled shelf solutions to some of the world’s biggest retailers – responsible for something like 3 billion price changes per week!

We worked very closely with them and they recognised that the software was a great strategic fit for them – with an opportunity to grow their business internationally. Last July, Vestcom acquired Integrated Retail, so we are now Vestcom International.


Sophie: How has the aquisition changed things?

Mark: It’s a huge change. Transforming from a very small company to becoming part of a big organisation. There are a lot of challenges, but it’s an incredibly exciting time.

One of the great things now is we are getting to sit down with a lot of very big retailers, and we are backed up with great resource – both technical and the credibility that comes from being part of the world’s biggest retail technology company.


Sophie: Mark, can you tell share more about the types of retailers you have been helping?

Mark: We are now beginning to be approached by people at a much earlier stage in development. For example we’re currently working with a very large shelf strip technology provider, who is about to launch a new range of products. So, it’s going to have M3 three built in and integrated from the start.

There has been a real benefit of talking to technology companies at an earlier stage and having them anticipate the integration.

Secondly, the door has been opened to existing customers, particularly in the US, and we’re talking to existing Vestcom customers who are now interested in taking the next step in terms of digitising their shelf edge.

Thirdly we are now able to play at a global level. We’re currently in the middle of a deployment to two chains in the Middle East, developing a holistic solution, which is both print and digital.

Having these additional resources will allow us to grow and take advantage of some of these opportunities, where maybe in the past, we’ve lacked the size to support these opportunities.

We have also been working with one of the biggest retailers in the UK at the moment – Dixons Carphone, and have just completed a hugely successful deployment of M3 to pilot Electronic Shelf Edge Labels at the Currys PC World store in Watford.

Vestcom partnered with xplace and SES-imagotag, working jointly with the team from Dixons Carphone over six months to plan, design and install a system which has iRexM3 providing the integration layer, ticket creation and business logic.

iRexm3 Currys PC World ESL Deployment
iRexm3 Currys PC World ESL Deployment

We were also recently at the RetailExpo, at Olympia at the beginning of May. It was a perfect opportunity to tell people what has been happening in the last 12 months and that we are now ready to go!


Sophie: What has been the response so far from retailers who have implemented the system?

Mark: I think the one that we’re really happy with after we were acquired by Vestcom is with Gift Universe, and one of their brands, Menkind.

Menkind is an interesting retailer for several reasons.

Firstly their demographic is not targeted so often, but also they’re incredibly fast moving, very opportunistic and do all the stuff you need to survive in a fast moving retail world – whether it’s pop up stores, rapid price changing or fast sourcing of products.

They have a very rapid turnaround in the evolution of the product mix. They also use very clever marketing and quite complex brand messages (for example, with drones). So every aspect of their retail is challenging.

We initially deployed iRexM3 to six stores back in summer 2018, ahead of peak trading. The response was fantastic – both in terms of qualitative feedback from the staff on the benefits the tickets had brought, and also the quantitative savings they experienced.

Menkind quickly rolled out the system to their entire estate. We visited one of the initial trial stores to talk to the staff about their experiences. For example they had all kinds of problems with new products arriving in the store which didn’t have pricing information. All of that was swept aside because they had the ability to do rapid price and marketing message updates, and the ability to only print out the tickets that needed to be updated. This freed up time to spend with customers, and they saw an uplift in sales. They also loved the fact that we were able to put details such as Feefo review ratings on the tickets.


Sophie: Mark, do you have any final words?

Mark: If you’re an executive, and you’re trying to make changes in the organisation, it’s going to happen in full glare, because people are going to share stuff on social media and new employees are going to be sharing with you. So why not just flip it around?

Welcome the opportunity to gather feedback, and share the corporate experience of changing the customer experience. Customers love to see companies being honest, and working hard to make things better for them.

It boils down to a couple of things which are very trendy at the moment, but few people think about what they actually mean.

One of them is transparency, and the other is trust.

So if we start with transparency – being honest, and sharing stuff. Traditionally retailers haven’t shared – particularly the bad!  If you do something that goes wrong, just put your hands up and say we’re going to learn from this, we’re going to make it better. People are beginning to really appreciate that kind of approach.

Trust and customer choice is important. You might have somebody come into your shop who is a little more introverted and doesn’t like to be approached. If they can trust what they see on the shelf edge they gain confidence that they are buying it from a good retailer.

Retail is alive and kicking, but you have to be able to build trust, loyalty and a clear sense of identity.

People talk about Amazon because of product and data, but, it’s because Amazon made a point to become the most customer-focused company.

It’s no surprise to me to find Amazon are opening physical stores – because ultimately, that’s the only thing they don’t have. If Amazon feel physical retail is the only way left to develop their brand, everyone should sit up and take notice.

Want to learn more about iRexM3 by Vestcom – including the recent Currys PC World ESL deployment?

Please take a look here