River Island began life in 1948 when founder Bernard Lewis began selling vegetables and knitting wool from the remnants of a burned out Luftwaffe plane in the East End of London.
Fast-forward some 67 years and the company is now a leader in high-street fashion, with over 240 outlets across the UK generating revenue of around £1bn.
This ability to evolve and transform over time has been central to the company’s success and remains as relevant as ever as it now looks to the use of digital technologies in-store and online to maintain this success.
V3 chatted with the man responsible for this transformation, CIO Doug Gardner (pictured), who’s been with the firm for four years having joined from French Connection where he served as IT director.
“My big remit here is digital. We’re really moving on from just having an app and a website, to becoming a fully connected digital company,” he said.
“This has involved going through a massive transformation in the IT team and the company as a whole to become more digitally focused.”
This has involved reforming the structure of the technology teams at the company so that they are all more aware of the projects taking place and how they can link together to benefit the business as a whole.
“Technology is key to revenue generation for us. It touches the end user customer and we have to embrace that and engage with digital technology, and we need our people involved in that so that the whole team is customer focused,” Gardner said.
“The change we’re going though connecting everything requires everyone in the technology department to be engaged with what we’re doing.”
One example of this desire to link the online and the physical in a “seamless digital experience” is the notion of being able to use your phone as you arrive at a shop to let staff know you’re there to collect an online order.
Another interesting idea River Island is working on is to let customers use a phone to scan an item to check size and colour availability at the store they are in and any nearby outlets.
“The customer expects a more connected journey now, whether online or in-store, so we need to ensure we provide that experience,” said Gardner.
He added that the board is fully behind this drive. “The board sees that and understands that the need for technology is rising. It’s not just something in the background but a key factor in generating revenue,” he explained.
This focus on digital tools and technologies also extends to shop staff with the use of 2,500 rugged Motorola MC40 devices.
“Staff are used to using these types of device so we thought it would be better to give them something like this and let them get on with it, rather than rolling out some locked down tool that required a load of training on how to use it,” he said.
Gardner added that little to no training is required with the new handsets as they are so similar to everyday mobile devices.
Providing these types of device means that staff can perform many back-office functions, like updating stock or sending information to headquarters, from the shop floor, thereby improving productivity.
“A lot of this is just about putting tools in people’s hands that they are comfortable with,” he said.
Gardner claimed that bringing digital technologies into physical stores is the future of retail, as partly shown by purely online retailers, such as Amazon, now considering opening physical stores.
“People still want to buy stuff instantly and try things on and touch it and feel it and so on. People moved to digital for convenience but they still want that in-store experience so we have to provide the best of both, and make them work together,” he explained.
Gardner has overseen a push into the cloud to bring this focus on digital innovation to the fore, using HPE’s cloud environment for internal systems and migrating to AWS for customer-facing websites.
Gardner said that doing this removed many of the traditional IT burdens on the tech team and freed them to focus on new ideas and innovations.
“Bottom of the list for moving to the cloud was the cost. It was about removing the headaches and the endless meetings about disk drives and those sort of things that now don’t exist anymore,” he said.
“This frees up mine, and the team's, minds to focus on new ideas and be more flexible as required, rather than worrying about whether we have enough rack space to accommodate new servers.”
He urged other firms to see cloud migration in a similar way. “Moving to the cloud isn’t just some ‘lift and shift’ where you do all the same things. It’s about a change in the way you think and work,” he said.
River Island has also moved to a new network infrastructure, delivered by Claranet, so that the company can handle the increasing amount of digital data flowing between its various locations.
“The network ties everything we’re doing together so we rolled out a new core infrastructure linking our stores to head office,” he explained.
Gardner added that keeping the network up to scratch is vital for the company's digital push, citing the ability for shop staff to place click and collect orders for customers if an item is not in stock.
“Staff can place the order and take the money at the till but if the connectivity is not there it won’t work and that will affect revenues. Forty percent of our revenues come from click and collect, so having good access to those systems is incredibly important," he said.
“Previously our systems were mostly in-store on back-office servers, but in this omnichannel world with real-time systems we need a strong network.”
He noted too that solid connectivity is especially important with the move to the cloud.
Interestingly, Gardner said that one of the reasons he chose to work with Claranet is because it is not a giant supplier, but rather a “robust” smaller firm that is similar to River Island in how it functions.
“I prefer using smaller, robust suppliers where I can because, rather than having to go through 16 account managers to speak to someone who can actually help, you can often speak to the CEO in just a couple of calls,” he explained.
“This means that you can retain your agility because if your requirements change you can get what you need much more easily than with some giant firm where it takes six months to get what you’re after.”
Gardner and his team will no doubt hope that this focus on agility internally and with suppliers helps its digital focus to bear fruit for the next 67 years, whatever they bring.
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