by Mark Chillingworth

Channelling the White Stuff

May 25, 20117 mins
IT LeadershipIT StrategyRetail Industry

Tin toy aeroplanes and mannequins in Super­man costumes greet you as you enter the Kennington headquarters of clothing retailer White Stuff.

The theme continues inside the building — a former Hackney Carriage depot — with flock wallpaper, clocks your grandparents would have had and a 1970s kitchen with all its kitsch accessories.

There is a mock street full of White Stuff outlets, and the building also has electric car-charging points, showers for cyclists and a car club rental vehicle on site. Mike Padfield, Head of IT at White Stuff, also ­ref­lects his organisation’s ethos, greeting CIO wearing one of the company’s distinctive shirts.

It’s 26 years since White Stuff’s founders, who still own the company, began printing T-shirts to sell on the ski slopes of the Alps. Today the company has 80 shops, an e-commerce offering, call centre catalogue services and sells through department stores including John Lewis.

“We are a truly multi-channel business,” Padfield says. He explains that the business sells 10 per cent of its stock through wholesalers, 20 per cent through its e-commerce and catalogue channel and its high street stores still dominate the business model.

All White Stuff clothing is the company’s own design, and with the design teams sitting just around the corner from Padfield’s office, there is no clear distinction in the building between IT, finance and fashion.

White Stuff sources manufacturing in the Far East, Turkey and China like most and aims at the “smarter and fashionable end of casual”, Padfield explains.

“We are still looking to expand with a further 20 shops and there are plans for ­international expansion.

“We now need to be a cross-channel business with a single view of the customer,” Padfield says of the new business processes and IT strategy he has been driving since March 2010. “The journey started 18 months ago when we looked at replacing the point of sale (POS) system and then took a wider view to look at what we could do to be a proper cross-channel retailer.

“Fourteen months ago we reviewed all of the business processes and then went and talked to the IT suppliers about how their solutions would fit our business. We are defining what our customer promise will be as part of this review.

“The business was very open to reviewing the processes. A set of workshops helped us look at the way we do things now and from that we worked out a process,” he says of the cross-company review.

Cross-channel strategy

Padfield’s aim is to create a single view of all White Stuff stock across all channels, and to reduce manual processes, especially when shifting stock from the retail to the e-commerce operations.

As the company defined the new processes which it needed to achieve this, Padfield and his team sought the best IT solution to make it happen.

K3 Retail Business Solutions was selec­ted from a shortlist. The Oxfordshire company is a specialist in Microsoft Dynamics and White Stuff will use a Dynamics-based system for POS, warehousing, financials  and CRM while keeping its existing e-commerce infrastructure.

Padfield has high hopes for the Dynamics CRM system. “We are good at recording customer details online, but not at capturing that information elsewhere in the business,” he says.

The rollout has already begun, with the finance team moving onto Dynamics in April 2011. The POS was already in pilot phase in four stores and Padfield expected rollout to be completed by March 2011 alongside that of the new stock management tools from K3. As these bed in White Stuff is considering a click-and-collect ­option to tie together e-commerce and the retail shops.

“K3 is our main platform on HP hardware. We have also built a new data­centre at our distribution centre in Leicester which will mirror the datacentre in London. We have updated the server farm at the same time.” Although virtualisation is a key strategy for many CIOs, Padfield consciously avoided it at White Stuff.

“The extra cost of physical servers was not as much as going virtualised. At a later date we may well adopt it into our strategy,” he says.

White Stuff has used retail IT specialist­ Retail Assist as part of the integration of the new technology. The firm also provides out-of-hours IT support for White Stuff.

“We use them for specific pieces of work when we don’t have the bandwidth in house,” Padfield explains. He has an IT team of 10: an operation group which supports the infrastructure, some SQL ­developers who deal with the data reports generated by the business and who are now becoming the White Stuff experts on Dynamics, and some integration and data migration experts.

Comms to commerce Padfield joined White Stuff in March 2010, just as the banking crisis and the ensu­ing financial slowdown were at their worst and the retail sector was weathering it particularly badly. Interestingly, Padfield joined from BT Expedite, the retail systems arm of the major telecommunications provider, but at White Stuff he didn’t opt for the systems his previous employer offered.

“It’s not as suitable for the smaller footprint of stores that we have,” he explains.  “I was part of the account management team at BT Expedite, but I was not directly involved when I was invited to interview for White Stuff.”

Like every IT leader to have done a stint vendor-side, Padfield is glad for the experi­ence and believes it makes him a better ­retail IT director.

“BT was a chance to see what life was like as a supplier. I expected to be there for three or four years, but it was only two in the end. But it was enough to get an understanding of life under the skin of a supplier and it has proved useful as it works in the vendors’ favour as well as we learn that there is no point in beating up a supplier.

“In my experience the more mature vendors realise that retailers are not changing their systems that often. It is five years for a till and POS system, and back-office systems stay in place for 10 years, so the relationship between the vendor and the retailer has got to work over the long term.

“Vendors now appreciate that and if as a CIO you want to do something different, then another of their customers will want to do the same thing at some time, so they will work with you on the development.”

Padfield is already collaborating with K3 to enhance the quality control side of its systems to the benefit of White Stuff and no doubt others.

“What was interesting was how well White Stuff rode the recession,” he says. “It is an incredibly strong brand with a strong customer following. It has good retail abilities, so it’s a good place to be.”

Padfield clearly enjoys the relaxed atmosphere at White Stuff too, which even allows people to bring their dogs to work.

“It’s great to have such a wide range of people here, and I’ve just had a chance to try on next season’s range,” he says.

Retail is a sector that seems to keep its CIOs and IT leaders, with few of them heading off into manufacturing or financial services. Padfield is no different, and spent 12 years of his early career at Marks & Spencer before joining the Mosaic Group, which today is known as Aurora.

As befits the IT chief of such a dynamic, youthful brand, Padfield cycles to the Oval office from Marylebone station and all three of his children play rugby – including his young daughter.

As the economy improves and the project ends there is a positive vibe about White Stuff, and real expectation that its processes will improve just as consumers have a little more in their pockets.