The family-owned fashion brand operates around 300 stores, and – like many other bricks and mortar retailers – has spent the best part of the past decade trying to build an online presence that complements, rather than competes with, the shopping experience customers enjoy in-store.
Speaking to Computer Weekly at the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Transformation Day in London at the end of October 2017, Gardner described the process above as being one of the biggest challenges facing heritage high street brands today.
In the case of River Island and its high street contemporaries, pressure to get this right has markedly ramped up over the past five or so years, as the number of online-only fashion outlets (such as Asos and Missguided) has grown.
“We’ve always adapted [to what’s going on in the market], and River Island was an early adopter of websites, apps and all of that, but five, six, seven years ago, no one was really sure about the impact [online] would make to the business overall,” says Gardner.
“Then these pure-play [online-only] retailers were emerging, born of a new era, and it was apparent the general shift in retail was moving towards becoming very tech-focused.”
A fast and furious fashion focus
Unbound by the physical and financial constraints that come from operating a store-led business model, the “pure-plays” began to quickly wrest market share away from many of the high street fashion brands, forcing them to speed up their digital transformation efforts, he adds.
In the case of River Island, these trends resulted in a fundamental rethink of the role IT plays in its business, resulting in the reclassification of technology as merely a support for its business to something that leads it.
“[We] realised it wasn’t just about adding more systems, but fundamentally putting technology at the heart of what we did,” says Gardner.
Accordingly, this has seen the size of the technology team at River Island increase from 80-90 individuals around six years ago, when Gardner joined the firm, to a high of around 300 people now.
“It is continuing to grow, and is signalling a dramatic shift that technology is now part of the business-critical operation and providing added value, and a lot of the change is being driven by that elevated profile of technology in retail,” he says.
An important part of River Island’s digital transformation efforts involved using cloud to host its website. Not only to boost its resiliency and performance during Black Friday-induced traffic spikes, but because it’s a project that neatly demonstrated the benefit of using cloud to the rest of its business.
“The website [migration] was easy for the business to understand [because I could say] by moving from hosting A to hosting B, we’d get more resilience and it will help us survive peaks. So it helped, but it was by no means the only reason for doing this.”
Beyond cheaper infrastructure
While having access to cheaper, more reliable infrastructure is important, it is the business agility benefits of using cloud that Gardner was most keen to tap into through the move.
“We needed to be able to react hundreds of times quicker than we were,” he says. “A traditional, on-premise solution was never going to meet those needs. To survive in the retail business, we had to adopt a way of delivering and building technology that was exponentially quicker.”
Trying to achieve this with, what Gardner describes as, 15-year-old infrastructure and antiquated ways of working, was never going to work, as the company’s early foray into transforming itself into a digital retailer served to highlight.
“The inclination to begin with was let’s just throw a load of money to buy some really cool tech to compete with these guys – and that will make us a digital retailer,” he told attendees during the AWS Transformation Day keynote. “Unfortunately, that was not true. We went out and bought a load of shiny new things and built them on top of a big pile of poo.”
Gardner described this part of process as “incredibly painful” and “tremendously traumatic”, as the company sought to migrate its traditional, on-premise enterprise resource planning (ERP) system to a hybrid cloud setup, ahead of the website migration mentioned earlier.
“It was tremendously traumatic for the entire business. It was physically very difficult, because we learned a lot about our systems [and] about the state of them, and what we had when we tried to move them,” he says. “And it was traumatic for the team as we were signalling the end of one era and the start of a new one.”
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On the back of this, the company resolved to begin the process of replacing its datacentre-based infrastructure by moving to the AWS cloud, and drawing on this to start adopting some of the emerging technologies other digital retailers are building businesses on.
“The model most digital players adopt is they can go out, find these guys, experiment and plug into them really, really quickly. Our main driver, past just the website, was to adopt a lot of new technology that was powering a lot of our digital competitors,” he says.
“The only solution was going to be moving to the cloud and completely changing the way we develop and deploy things.”
As for why the company opted for AWS, over the likes of Microsoft Azure or the Google Cloud Platform, largely came down to the maturity of its offerings and amount of support it could lend the company over the course of its cloud journey.
“We were very new to the cloud and we didn’t have the expertise and that greater level of support made all the difference in the world. Instead of just throwing us into the cloud and telling us to figure it out, having someone who can offer really solid support really helped,” he adds.
Digitising the in-store shopping experience
This, in turn, set the scene for Gardner and his team to concentrate on finding ways to bring many elements of the online shopping experience customers value and enjoy to the shop floor.
As such, the company has rolled out Android-based devices to its shop floor staff, so they can source stock information for customers, place orders and complete purchases wherever they are in-store.
“We’ve moved the entire back office to the shop floor so [staff can spend] more time helping customers, and look up whatever our customer wants to buy and find suggestions about what to pair with their purchases,” says Gardner.
“It is early days, but a big part of our investment is geared towards removing the friction from the physical transaction, just as you have it removed from the digital process.”
Online shopping means people are now accustomed to finding the items they are looking for and completing their purchases within 30 or so seconds, and this is the sort of efficiency the company is looking to bring to its stores, which remains a critical component of the River Island brand.
“The whole process of streamlining the in-store experience is important, because what we do is curate fashion,” says Gardner. “We want people to come into our stores, and enjoy the physical shopping experience of being in-store with the staff, and getting to touch and feel the clothes. Adding in the digital layer means they can run that transaction very seamlessly and comfortably – and that’s a huge advance.”
An empowering experience
For the company’s staff, the process has been hugely empowering. Not only does it allow them to take a more proactive approach to meeting the needs of River Island customers, but employees have also reported feeling more confident in their dealings with them as a result.
“The store staff are really excited about all the tech we’re bringing in, because it’s changing their roles and how they interact with customers,” he says.
“When we started out on this process a few years ago, we had a lot of feedback that staff were feeling uncomfortable because customers would come in and know more about the brand than they did, because they could go online and find out what items had just arrived.
Doug Gardner, River Island
“Now they’re using the handheld devices to get a little bit of backup about how to accessorise a particular garment, for example, get whatever stock information customers need, and telling us it’s made them more confident when talking with customers.”
It’s not just staff and customers feeling the benefits of these changes. Gardner says the company’s digital transformation efforts are also benefiting its bottom line by reducing overheads and helping it secure sales it may previously have lost in-store.
“One thing we know is everyone’s impatient – they want it now. If a customer walks in and can’t find what they want in front of them, and you tell them to go home and order it, there is a good chance they won’t,” he says.
“So having the ability to satisfy customers’ needs and get them what they want is something we’re definitely seeing benefits from.”
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