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As fashion retailer New Look continues its business turnaround and plans to launch operations in China, technology is playing a crucial role in driving operational improvements while boosting profit margins and revenue growth.
The company's IT department is led by Dan West, who joined the company in January 2013 after spending nearly four years at online fashion retailer Asos, where he supported the firm’s international expansion.
Full-year results for New Look, released in early June, show the group made a pre-tax profit of £3.1m, compared with losses of £54.5m a year earlier, and this is largely credited to the recovery drive of the past year, which included a major store refurbishment and a more pronounced move towards multichannel.
West's motto is to "drive value through technology", and he will be drawing on his recent work experience to do that, especially given the importance of online for the business – New Look also reported a 50% increase in web sales in 2012.
“We will strengthen our IT delivery and capability, and also build on the digital experience and leadership values I have, to enable New Look to become a true multichannel retailer,” West told Computer Weekly, in his first interview in the new job.
One of the main IT work streams at New Look is around web enhancements. According to West, the online side of the business has performed well so far from an operational standpoint, but there is still more work to do.
“You have to enable an upward trajectory, but also enable scale to grow further. There are a lot of improvements that can be made in terms of customer experience,” he says.
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One of the first deliverables to that end was improvement of the search capability of New Look’s website. The company rolled out Oracle Endeca tools this year to increase relevance of results and influence consumers as searches are carried out. This, according to West, is generating positive results as customers can obtain information that is better matched to their search criteria.
New Look is also using technology in-store to boost sales, with features such as click-and-collect and order-in-store introduced recently. Without giving out too much detail about what's coming next in that area, West implies that more customer-facing improvements will be launched soon.
“In the next few months, we will have an improved customer experience online, more payment channels, greater personalisation and a much better mobile commerce capability,” he says. “We will offer an omnichannel, seamless retail experience between online and in-store.”
New Look is also putting resources into extracting financial value out of the data it collects from customers. West says the in-house team is working on big data initiatives in conjunction with partners.
“We are looking to get a more detailed view of the customer,” he says. “To do that, we need to move to a position where we can collate all of that data into a single area and turn it into meaningful information. We also need to think about what we need to know about the customers.”
New Look has many differing technologies that have evolved as the business has grown. So being able to join up the systems simply and seamlessly will enable the business vision of being an international multichannel retailer
Dan West, New Look
Revamping the infrastructure
New Look is a predominantly Oracle shop. According to West, another important project is geared at improving the IT set-up supporting the company. The intention is to beef up or replace various legacy systems supplied by the supplier.
This project will last between 18 and 24 months and aims to integrate these currently disparate core platforms.
"New Look has many differing technologies that have evolved as the business has grown. So being able to join up the systems simply and seamlessly will enable the business vision of being an international multichannel retailer. Our systems need to be modernised, we need to become a lot more flexible and focused," West says.
"We will be replacing our core legacy retail management system and will increase the e-commerce and m-commerce capability. The projects are now underway and we are assessing future business requirements.”
Tendering for the core systems will take place in the second half of this year, with delivery next year and beyond. And when the time for assessing new systems comes, smaller, niche products will also be taken into account.
“All options need to be considered. What we need to have is open, flexible and robust systems that can cope with our growing scale and support our international operation,” he says.
West manages a 150-strong department, as well as contractors from key suppliers such as Accenture, which supports the retailer with overnight data processing, infrastructure management and third-line application support from the UK and India.
The in-house team focuses on first and second-line support and maintenance of retail systems, enterprise applications, online and mobile development, as well as supplier management.
West says the inherited relationship with Accenture is "very good" and that the outsourcing arrangement with offshore capability still makes sense.
“Outsourcing to India is still a very credible option. We have a lot of UK-based touch points with Accenture, and the relationship is working very well from an operational perspective,” he says.
“It is an ever-evolving process, but there are some strong service management practices in place at New Look and a lot of people who have some very good relationships with the UK touch points [at Accenture]. As a result, we are able to drive a lot of value out of the service that Accenture provides.”
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Despite being mainly based at New Look’s London headquarters and a support centre in Weymouth, West's remit is global and he will be leading the firm's IT organisation in China.
New Look’s Chinese operation will launch in early 2014, but the IT director still has a fair amount to do beforehand, as a full retail technology suite of products, merchandising, reporting, e-commerce, logistics, fulfillment, finance and customer service will be put in place. These systems will be procured separately and New Look is talking to potential suppliers.
"The size of the New Look China IT department is very small, with four people today. But we are actively discussing future local partnerships to help deliver the depth of capabilities and services required," says West.
With the business at New Look's UK and international markets to be supported, as well as new locations to be launched and alternative shopping channels to be improved, West says his main challenge is simply keeping up with business change and the demands of the global retail environment.
“We will be using technology to enable faster business change. Something like enterprise service bus, which would enable us to adapt to and adopt various different technologies very quickly for business benefit, is interesting and the enrichment of data is fascinating as well,” he says.
“But we have a lot to do – multichannel, improving the customer’s experience in e-commerce and mobile, and modernising the core retail business, which is quite a large piece of transformational work and will transform ways of working. It’s no mean feat, to be honest,” says West.