Marks & Spencer (M&S) has traditionally been viewed, fairly or not, as an old fashioned sort of retailer, selling cardigans, sensible underwear and the like. In its latest attempt to shake off this image, the high-street retailer has promised to increase its investment in new wave technologies.
Earlier this month, M&S chairman Luc Vandevelde told investors that the innovative use of IT was the only way that the company, which has 312 stores in the UK, could move forward in our increasingly competitive retail market.
To support this strategy, M&S has produced a document spelling out its corporate technology architecture which defines and directs all technology decisions made by its IT department the company announced last week.
Peter Fox, chief technology officer at M&S, said the document, produced in conjunction with software and services firm Conchango, will act as a best practice guide for every IT project the company rolls out.
"It gives us a standard methodology and a single point of reference that will bring coherency through all our projects," said Fox.
"It refers to best practice on aspects such as security and, from an architectural point of view, is a great help for our IT department and developers."
Tony Hart, managing analyst at research firm Datamonitor, said a standard approach to IT can help large companies such as M&S to cut costs.
"Massive brands such as M&S effectively run a head office with lots of satellite offices, which sometimes have their own IT infrastructures," he said. "People have realised that there are huge efficiencies to be gained by consolidating their hardware and software."
For example, Hart said, if a company is running many different versions of software it makes it harder for the IT department to deal with problems, as the solutions cannot be replicated.
The new technology guide also means the IT department is able to deliver projects more quickly, according to Janice Ward, head of infrastructure solutions at M&S.
"Because everyone knows the architecture, project start-up time is a lot shorter," she said. "It means we can develop more projects that will bring benefit to the business."
Before implementation of the new plan IT projects were often delayed by lengthy meetings, Fox admitted. "We were having too many discussions about current projects rather than looking ahead," he said. "This means everything we do is business-driven, not technology for technology's sake."
As well as helping the internal IT department, the policies spelled out in the document will act as a corporate roadmap for preferred suppliers such as Conchango, Fox said. "It gives us a shared vision across the business so that everyone knows how we are doing," he said. "We also share certain information with other strategic suppliers."
In a climate where most IT projects are focused on short-term returns, having a strategy document that outlines future plans can benefit a business, Hart said.
"Future-proofing your technology to ensure it is scalable and so forth is important, but financial constraints are stopping this," he said. "There needs to be a balance between short- and long-term requirements - an issue that often causes disputes between the IT department and the board."
Indeed, such a document can help IT departments justify investments to their boards, provided they are realistic, Hart said.
"As long as they present long-term one component at a time plans, with the initial focus on projects that get quick returns, IT departments can get buy-in from the board," he said. "The stated aims have to be realistic - they have to learn lessons from past problems such as those with customer relationship management systems."
However, a company looking at producing such a structure must make sure it is not too restrictive, Hart warned. "The satellite operations may not appreciate being told what systems they should use if they have been using others for years".
Although it acts as a guide for all M&S' IT projects, the strategy is not restrictive, insisted Fox. "The document is not static; it is reviewed and reissued on a regular basis depending on technology trends and demands from the business." It will continue to develop and evolve alongside M&S' commercial strategy, he said.
"As we increasingly align the technical infrastructure with the needs of the business, it will free the IT team up to do what they are good at - creating good applications," he said.
Marks & Spencer's architecture projects
Marks & Spencer has promised to increase its investment in innovative technology. It has already begun trials of several IT projects centred on emerging technologies.
Radio frequency ID tags
It has been trialling radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, which allow goods to be electronically tracked along the supply chain, within its fresh food logistics operation.
Aileen Ross, industry marketing manager at bar coding systems and RFID tags provider Zebra Technologies, which worked on the project, said RFID has reduced "tremendously" the time it takes M&S to ship food out of its distribution centre.
"The company used to bar code all the individual trays of products at its distribution centre and scan each one manually," she said. "Now it has moved to RFID tags, staff can push a dolly containing 36 trays through a portal reader and read them all simultaneously. The system will raise an alarm if there is something on there that should not be."
M&S is also considering implementing self-service checkouts which allow customers to scan and pay for their own shopping.
Earlier this month, the company began a 12-week trial of the Fastlane self-checkout till system, from supplier NCR, at an out-of-town store in Gateshead, a city centre store in Oxford and a regional centre store in Uxbridge.
The self checkout tills, are networked into M&S' global electronic point of sale system from Fujitsu, and programmed to recognise the bar code and exact weight of every product in the store.
The interactive touchscreen is designed to guide shoppers through every stage of the process with visual and verbal prompts, while software designed to weigh the bagged items detects any inconsistencies between what is scanned and what is placed in the bag.
Fraud detection system
As well as looking at self-service checkouts, M&S has moved to bolster security on its existing till network in recent months.
In May the company announced that it had implemented a new fraud detection system that would reduce fraud at the tills by 10% by catching perpetrators within 30 seconds of an illegal transaction.
All point-of-sale transactions in M&S stores are monitored by a VS.net based "listening system" which queries purchases, expressed as XML (Extensible Markup Language), against a set of user-defined rules, such as specified amounts or stolen credit card numbers.
Suspect transactions are identified by comparing patterns of buyer behaviour and mapping receipts from individual cash registers with information stored in a VS.net based central analysis system. Once a suspect transaction is identified, an SMS message is immediately sent, via a specially written VS.net service, to store security and managers' mobile phones. The whole process takes about 30 seconds, the retailer claims.