Eight months into his IT director role at John Lewis, Paul Coby is quietly leading a three-year, technology-enabled revolution intended to make the firm the leading multichannel retailer in the UK.
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Coby is no stranger to such a task - during more than a decade as CIO at British Airways, he was at the centre of a transformation of business processes through the use of technology, in both BA and the wider airline industry. Under his watch, BA introduced innovations such as online check-in and mobile phone boarding cards. He left BA in January this year following the merger with Spanish airline Iberia.
Speaking exclusively to Computer Weekly, Coby says his focus now is improving the customer shopping experience by offering more services across all retail channels as well as modernising the IT that makes the business tick.
"We want to be a leader in a multichannel world and IT is a fundamental building block of that. So we need to be the leading retail IT unit in the UK in three years' time if we are to support that ambition," he said.
The online operation at John Lewis for the week ending 15th October saw the company's best ever sales performance, with an increase of nearly 36% compared to the same week in 2010, and annual web growth now sits at about 25%. According to Coby, the results highlight the importance of continued investment in multichannel improvements.
"The current scenario in UK retail feels a bit as it did in the air travel industry back in 2003, where you saw a significant shift in terms of people buying tickets and services online," said Coby.
"Our online business is growing a lot, but I can't claim any credit for all the work that has been done so far in order to get there. It is a recognition that IT is a fundamental component of the strategy going forward," he said.
"But if technology tries to go somewhere by itself, it won't get anywhere. What we are about is revolutionising the way retail works and there has been some incredible progress made there."
Multichannel improvements include services such as free in-store Wi-Fi access, which was introduced in October to give shoppers access to John Lewis' transactional website and the internet, with a wishlist feature that synchronises between users' home computers and mobile phones.
The retailer is also looking to catch up with its competitors when it comes to mobile commerce and apps for devices including the iPhone and iPad will be launched soon.
The recent improvements were developed by the firm's multichannel unit and are aimed at further enhancing customers' in-store shopping experience - other services include in-store kiosks and "click and collect" facilities whereby customers can buy items online and collect in store.
"Widespread internet penetration, smartphones and tablets have revolutionised the way people interact with businesses. People want the ease that things like apps can provide and consumers expect to get online and order very easily and it all has to be very easy to do," said Coby.
"But I have always felt like there is no great mystery to online - it is about providing things that people want, making it really easy for them to use tools to buy them wherever they are and sell them at the right price."
Minding the shop
Underpinning the multichannel strategy, there is also a lot of activity around revamping John Lewis's legacy back-end systems. The firm's existing web site will be re-engineered next year to enable new features under a major investment programme, with Oracle-supplied software at the heart of the new platform.
The electronic point-of-sale (EPoS) system at John Lewis is also being replaced as part of the new business focus. The PCMS VisionBeanStore application will be rolled out across 3,000 tills, including all department store and hospitality operations. The system trials started last week at the firm's pilot store in Leicester.
"In relation to our systems, we are taking something that was quite bespoke and putting in industry-standard platforms; that certainly applies to the website," Coby said.
"But that does not mean in any way that John Lewis is going to settle for being the same as everyone else. It does say that what we need to do is modernise our platforms to provide differentiators in terms of value, service, assortment and trust."
John Lewis shares infrastructure and, where applicable, systems with its sister company Waitrose. For example, the EPoS systems are the same, as well as warehouse management systems supplied by RedPrairie.
Coby is working closely with Kevin Berry, Waitrose's systems director, to explore new IT synergies between both businesses. One of the possibilities being discussed is how a customer data warehouse can be developed to provide insight on buying trends across the entire partnership.
"We are also working with SAS around customer analytics to understand better what our customers want from us and how we can look after them better," Coby said.
Waitrose had also been working on website improvements for the last couple of years as part of a multichannel drive. The project was put on ice for months due to technical complexities. Eventually, Waitrose.com went live earlier this year but faced issues such as slow speed and consequent customer complaints.
According to Coby, there are no plans to join up the John Lewis and Waitrose websites. "We are rather different businesses so we need separate websites," he said.
As an active supporter of IT sector skills council e-Skills UK, Coby has sought to drive a culture of skills retention and improvement at his IT department.
"We have some fantastically talented staff that understand retail and technology very well. And the fact that we have been achieving all this growth online is something I absolutely can't claim any credit for - they got there," he said.
"But one of the things we have to move forward on is ensuring that we retain talent, as they are what actually makes the difference."
To that end, John Lewis is working with e-Skills to introduce the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA), a model used for describing and managing IT skills and matching competencies to the needs of the business.
At Waitrose, an upskilling programme was being looked into last year so that commoditised tasks could be outsourced, but Coby's view is slightly different.
"I do believe in working with third-party partners like everyone does, but I don't believe in outsourcing," he said. "I also believe that being very good at IT and investing in people has to be the priority if we are to achieve our goals."