“Our true test will be Christmas; e-commerce demand spikes up so much for such a short period,” says John Bovill, Group IT Director for Aurora Fashions, the retail chain behind major high street names like Oasis, Coast and Karen Millen.
Bovill is discussing not only the pressures his own operation will face this December, but also those of Peter Mila, CIO for quality men’s shirt retailer Thomas Pink. The two are working in partnership to improve the IT operations of both companies and most importantly to deliver a quality retail experience both off- and online to their respective customers.
“We are completely different businesses, but we use the same technology providers, platforms and applications,” explains Mila of the relationship with Bovill.
“We are mitigating risk through collaborating,” adds Bovill. The two are clearly a team as we sit together at the Paul Street HQ of Aurora Fashions. Both are customers of BT Expedite, the retail systems arm of British Telecom. Pink and Aurora are users of the Expedite electronic point of sale (EPOS) system, Mercatus stock sales analytics and Fresca e-commerce platforms, the latter also now part of the BT empire.
“The issues that we face are similar, so its quicker to collaborate. Both companies are in the fashion business, but we are not direct competitors,” Bovill says. Aurora only trades women’s fashion while Thomas Pink’s USP is quality men’s shirts.
“Thomas Pink was looking for a new EPOS and Aurora had already done it with Expedite and we came over here to see it in operation, we then had a conversation and it just seemed sensible to work together.
“Both organisations had similar goals and methodologies. Both teams get on very well, which means the organisations complement each other well and can produce good test plans together,” Mila explains.
“There is a lot of trust,” Bovill says of the relationship and business-critical operations like testing. “There has to be because there is some sensitive data that is being passed back and forth.”
Not only are the two retail operations benefiting from the alliance, but so too is BT, which is working closely with them.
“We came together with BT Expedite as early adopters. It’s an opportunity to shape the development of the product,” says Bovill. “It brings a more retail focus to the product and we saw why other retailers were not adopting it. One of the key issues for both retailers and what we are developing with BT Expedite is the ability to seamlessly join together all our channels, which is easier to say than do, especially with things like credit card details,” he says.
The ultimate purchase for a retail CIO is a consolidated technology platform providing off- and online management along with stock management and fulfilment. For Bovill this is exacerbated by the fact that Aurora operates four separate brands.
When we met the duo in the autumn they were at the roll-out phase as Expedite will tie together all the EPOS systems, stock management and even planning to integrate with the retailers’ iPhone apps.
High-end fashion has certainly embraced e-commerce. Last month Burberry reported an increase of 50 per cent in its online sales in the first half of the financial year, while Aurora reported that over the last year, 10 per cent of its UK sales were via e-commerce.
“E-commerce is showing considerable growth and we see it as a rising tide,” Bovill says. “But it is a rising trend in a tough environment of innovation and branding.”
Mila agrees. “People are more comfortable with it than ever. We have all made it easier for the customer, in the early days it was a bit rough, especially with delivery.” Interestingly, both CIOs still see the logistics industry as the potential fly in their ointment. Both respect the pure e-commerce players but take some solace in the fact that they have bricks and mortar operations alongside their online offerings.
“The logistics game – Home Delivery Network, DHL and FedEx – have all really improved,” says Bovill.
“They are still the weakest link in the chain once a product leaves our door. There is mileage there for them to improve further, Mila adds, and both retailers have instigated online reserve-and-collect services for customers who want to choose and purchase online, but collect the item from a convenient store.
The pair are both very aware of the importance of the shops their organisations operate and although passionate about technology and the e-commerce opportunities it offers, they are very keen to discuss their shops and how their IT operations are improving the in-store experience.
“For us it’s about customer experience. This whole programme we are working on together is about how do we make the customer touch point exemplary so that they talk about the service, not just the products,” says Bovill.
“Whenever we put technology into a store there is a business benefit, but often the store staff do not see it as a store benefit. But with the Expedite project the staff saw benefits straight away.
“Availability is critical in our markets and if you have a tool than can be offered to the customer it is a big win for the store staff and or course the customer.”
Mila agrees. “Some of our stores are quite small, so the customers now get access to a bigger range, no matter the size of the store,” he says of the stock level visibility that both Thomas Pink and Aurora Fashion stores are now able to offer customers.
“The stores pay our salaries. There are lots of them and they are disparate, so it can be hard to give them the service they deserve,” Mila admits of the challenges a retail CIO faces. “Sometimes we can put technology in that makes them feel like they are 3000 miles away. No matter how hard we try there are occasions when they feel they need to make an extra call on us. We are really conscious they are standing in front of the customer.”
Bovill nods in agreement. “Stores see the negative side of e-commerce: returns. But my view on retail space is that we as an industry have lost the sense of theatre from our stores. They have become too transactional. This is not a productive model, it has to be about customer experience and relationships.
Bovill is already thinking of the next range of possibilities open to the retailers.
“In the near future we will have to think mobile and what that means to your customers. We have an iPhone app and mobile gift vouchers already. We are trialling tablet devices. Our view is that tablets will directly benefit the customer and this is where IT becomes front of house.”
All in hand
The duo are constantly seeking ways of integrating their platform into the customer experience and are excited about the possibility of customers and staff using a tablet device to see products that may not be in a particular store, checking availability, prices and sizes, before finally making a purchase and agreeing how the customer receives it, either via store collection or home delivery.
“Women’s fashion is becoming more of a social experience. People do go shopping for leisure and shopping centres like the new Westfield centre in London are becoming a better experience. The UK is a very tough market, there is a lot of competition,” Bovill says.
Mila, meanwhile, has to consider the needs of his typically office-bound executive customer. “On the other hand, people are becoming much more time-poor, so we have to think how we make the store purchases more successful for them,” he says.
Bovill emphasises the business role that IT has to play. “The interaction with the customer is being enabled by IT. It’s a two-way interaction that the customer is driving online. We are pushing IT to the front of the business. We are a product business, we are not a technology business, we accept that and our role is to enable our businesses to compete. IT is becoming way more important in that sense that it would have been five years ago,” he says.
Bovill and Mila have founded their partnership on a set of common IT goals to avoid any messy business issues that could arise.
“We are not infringing on the IP of our products, so that is why this relationship can work,” says Bovill.
Mila says of the benefits of it being an agreement between the two of them: “Any other way would have been untenable, there would have been too much noise. We have a common goal and we get a more rounded product by working together, because it is the experience of both of us.”
Bovill adds: “One of the key ground rules is the commonality of the software, and we both have strong governance around the work we do.”
The management teams of both organisations have embraced the duo’s ambitions and the business benefit the integration of BT Expedite has delivered.
“It was originally seen as an IT project and they have bought into it and see it as a retail project,” Mila says with satisfaction.
As the coalition government makes drastic cuts to its spending on public services, the two CIOs see their collaborative approach to delivering better IT services as a model to be copied.
“In other industries you have to be very careful about what you can share and in some sectors what we do could be accused of being a cartel, but I expect to see more collaboration, especially in the public sector,” says Bovill.
As well as a collaborative nature and a strong sense of the business opportunities that IT offers, both demonstrate a strong passion and understanding for retail and the fashion sector. When discussions move away from Expedite, both freely share their expert knowledge on the manufacturing needs of their organisations.
Bovill takes the opportunity to show us around the Aurora Fashions HQ, which is more than just a head office: on the top floor there is a creative buzz as skilled workers design the latest fashion garments on computer-aided design packages before cutting and sewing jackets and dresses together. Wherever we go in the building Bovill knows people by name, whether they wield steam iron or PC. Fashion runs through his veins and he describes each stage of the business with keen interest.
Although Bovill and Mila are of one mind when it comes to IT strategies for retail, away from the office Bovill enjoys the physical hardship of fell-running and just prior to our interview he had completed a 55km race in Iceland.
Mila prefers the luxury of his Aston Martin. “I love cars. My Aston Martin is a real feelgood car and a very similar luxury product to what we do at Thomas Pink.”