Andrey Popov -

Retail tech transformation: Winning boardroom hearts and minds

Retail tech leaders from Sweaty Betty and Selfridges discuss levers to pull and tactics to adopt when influencing the boardroom on transformation projects

As Errol Gardner, global vice-chair of consulting at EY, a multinational professional services firm, explained in a TechTarget guest article in April, now is the time for the chief information officer (CIO) and tech leader to influence business change.

“In the era of generative AI [artificial intelligence], 5G and increased investments in cloud and edge computing, CIOs should be central to an organisation’s efforts to transform and deliver long-term value,” he wrote.

“The challenge is that CIOs and their teams often find themselves on the margins at the initiation of transformation projects and new initiatives.”

We’re approaching the end of peak conference season in the retail industry, and many of the sessions at these events up and down the UK and across Europe covered that subject: how do tech teams influence hearts and minds in the boardroom?

Representatives from retailers of all shapes and sizes have discussed the issue, and their insights might prove useful for others in the industry currently embarking on their own transformation journeys or having difficulty getting heard at executive level.

Talking at IRX 2023 in Birmingham on 24 May, Selfridges’ head of digital, customer and data, Giles Smith, spoke about the benefits of “composable” technology and architecture. It’s a rapidly evolving and fast-growing approach, in retail, to managing and building software, and it has microservices at its core.

Smith joined the department store group in May 2022 from luxury brand Burberry, where he had been director of digital technology for five years. He had been central to a transformation project there that saw the retailer use these new engineering principles to create a tech platform and web experience that did not rely on an off-the-shelf large system from one supplier, but instead comprised best-of-breed elements for each digital touchpoint.

Board and leadership team

According to Smith, using this approach to development meant sell-in to the board and wider Burberry leadership team was crucial.

“How do we talk in the narrative of being able to build a feature five times quicker and uplift revenue by x, how do we talk in a language of a chief digital officer, not a chief architect or CIO? Historically, that whole RFP and business case exercise has been very exec and senior – and I think that is missing a trick,” he says. “There are people in your organisation suffering the most, some of the most junior members of staff are suffering with [insufficient] tools.”

Smith reveals Burberry’s tech team started to bring the junior members of staff to forums with the leadership team, where they would be asked to show everyone how – for example – they move content on the retailer’s website.

“It was a really nice way of bringing [together] a more collective group of more cross-functional people and different members of the organisation to tell the story of why this is so painful,” he says.

However, this approach might not work at other organisations, Smith adds, and it would be “arrogant” to presume all retailers could operate in this way and make use of composable tech. He acknowledges that Burberry was well positioned to follow this path.

“At Burberry, I walked into an organisation that was very mature with engineering and product management, and agile,” says Smith. “There were minimal barriers about how to build technology in the modern way. We were choosing a systems integrator and engineering partners with the same mindset we had internally.

“If you don’t have those ingredients today, I think that’s a more important problem to address than trying to build technology with a microservices-based, API-first, cloud-native, and headless (MACH) approach,” he adds.

Boardroom buy-in

Smith suggests a positive scenario for digital transformation to succeed starts with the tech team having initial boardroom buy-in – and then the building can occur incrementally.

“People are frightened of a big, long programme that costs lots of money,” he says.

“If you fix the most pressing problem, you can see it adds customer value and ideally it is not the most complex one, so you can build up credibility – I think there’s an opportunity to get momentum.”

For example, he explains, fixing the search engine on the website to help conversion rates go up in a short space of time can convince those holding the purse strings to keep finding additional budget.

Three-point planning

One month before IRX, many retail and tech industry leaders gathered in London for the Retail Technology Show at London’s Olympia venue.

Simon Pakenham-Walsh, ex director of technology at Sainsbury’s, former Arcadia digital and retail technology director, and now chief technology officer (CTO) at womenswear retailer Sweaty Betty, maps out his company’s digital growth plans.

Pakenham-Walsh joined in April 2021, and having conducted the obligatory assessment of existing tech and potential tech investments, and then building a roadmap, he oversaw some significant developments in 2022. Mobile point of sale is now installed in stores, and the retailer has built an integration layer online which enables it to decouple the architecture – similar to how Smith described the Burberry approach.

That so-called “headless” web architecture has been installed in Sweaty Betty’s US business, and the CTO reports it has resulted in 70% quicker page load speeds compared with the previous system.

The plan is for the UK business to follow suit in due course, but other ambitions include completing its data platform “and making sure the company is data-literate, so we know what we are going to do with the data platform and how we are going to consume the data, whether that is from a system or reporting perspective”. Pakenham-Walsh also wants to ramp up the company’s marketing tech stack so it can understand its customers better.

On talking investors and other key stakeholders through big tech projects, he says: “You need to make it quite simple, not because they can’t grasp something complex, but because you need to be able to repeat it again, again and again, and be really consistent in your message. Keep it simple, keep it consistent.”

Read more about retail technology

Pakenham-Walsh also suggests it’s important for tech bosses to stand their ground on the areas they don’t want to concede on.

“I believe in ‘long live change’ in the key areas of my technology stack,” he says. “I don’t want a project that is delivered and we say ‘brilliant, we’ve delivered a data platform, we can run away, we don’t need anyone to support the data platform and the reports will just magically work for everyone’.”

The CTO wants to embed a way of working in the organisation that embraces change and an approach that means new tools are not just acquired. They need to be built on, and the right people need to be brought in to use the tech in the most productive ways.

“An easy way of bringing it to life for executives is to look at it across a number of levels,” he says.

“At a micro level you can see this is not working, and this is the opportunity you are missing; on a macro level you can say ‘these are our competitors that are doing it well’ or ‘this is what you have heard about and this is how it can relate to us’.”

Pakenham-Walsh also urges tech bosses looking to run new transformation projects or new digital developments to “make it actionable”. The board needs to be given clear recommendations that come with a risk assessment and a clear understanding of what is needed of them, he says.

“I was always told by someone I worked with at Sainsbury’s [to] have three points,” adds Pakenham-Walsh. “Keep it simple, everyone is always going to grasp three points.”

Engage the engineers

EY’s Gardner talks up the need for CIOs to “see the human elements of the transformation”, not just the all-important customer experience (CX) they are trying to elevate with their digital investments.

The impact tech will have on employee experience and the teams delivering technology offerings sit alongside that CX focus, he explained in his April guest article.

For Pakenham-Walsh, retailers need to build “tech-savvy” teams, but these people also need to understand the challenges of the business.

At Sweaty Betty there are foundational, commercial and customer tech teams, all with their own separate stakeholder groups and technologies to focus on. According to the CTO, getting them to work “relatively independently” from each other means fewer competing priorities, and “it’s more fun if you feel in more control of your world and you can deliver against everything you’ve got”.

Smith has a similar view. He says much of the technology brought in at Burberry during his tenure “really transformed the lives of the engineers”.

“It meant they were more empowered, autonomous, had less dependencies, and people could see their ambitions and ideas realised in a faster time,” he says. “And most importantly, the users, [for example] merchandisers and content managers, need the right tools to be creative in their jobs.”

Smith says the people who organisations want to be creative and think about the brand and elevation of the product often spend “nine hours a day trying to navigate IT tickets just to move a banner from red to blue”. That needs to be addressed if true transformation is to occur in a retail business. “Tech has to play a role for the customer, but it has to play a role in enabling your teams in the organisation to unleash their potential,” he says.

Read more on IT for retail and logistics

Data Center
Data Management