Interview: New look IT in store for Harvey Nichols

Computer Weekly talks to Harvey Nichols retail operations director Martin Schofield about plans for a new online operation, understanding customers better and balancing multiple roles

Computer Weekly talks to Harvey Nichols retail operations director Martin Schofield about plans for a new online operation, understanding customers better and balancing multiple roles

Harvey Nichols is now driving a more consistent online multichannel strategy as fears of a fresh slowdown in high street spending emerged earlier this month. According to the Office for National Statistics, retail sales dropped by 0.5% between July and August this year, with clothing spend down by about 0.4%.

The high-end department store had been capturing customer details at the till point to analyse buying patterns and drive targeted marketing, but will be taking that "to the next level" over the next 12 months.

"We are putting some cash and resource into making our multichannel online presence stronger," said retail operations director at Harvey Nichols, Martin Schofield. "It is all about the things that impact the customer on the shopfloor. We will be focusing on getting quality data, as the information we currently have is not as high-level as we would like it to be.

"The piece of work we have been gearing towards is around a multichannel push and combine that with a more cohesive online presence, with potential for a loyalty card scheme," Schofield told Computer Weekly.

From an IT standpoint, Harvey Nichols' year ahead is all about delivering the new online proposition. A transactional website has been in place for the past four years, but it has grown in a piecemeal fashion. The web operation at the retailer is also fragmented, with websites covering areas such as its Christmas hamper business running on a separate website, so the project is to consolidate the online set-up into one platform in a project that is due to complete in a matter of weeks.

According to Schofield, the department store has always been wary about e-tail, for a number of reasons including the fact it stocks high-priced items, where the risk of returns is higher. Harvey Nichols stocks about 3,000 items online at present.

Bringing websites together so they are both informational and transactional is a complex exercise and also quite costly, so it must be carried out with caution.

"The biggest part is the internal resource in terms of marketing and the content provision. This is the biggest chunk of expenditure as you need a team of copywriters and photographers to put all the information about the products together," said Schofield. "When you start to look at the cost of providing content, the process ends up being quite expensive and becomes quite a chunk of the margin. If we were selling T-shirts for £10 it would be different, but we are not," he said.

Capturing customer data

Harvey Nichols is also looking at the possibilities of a loyalty scheme, which would need to be fully integrated with in-store and online operations, as well as hospitality.

"We want to recognise customers' movements between what they eat at our restaurants, which wine they choose and what they buy in store. The goal is to get a more detailed understanding of our customer base," said Schofield.

Once the specifications are defined, it is possible that a trial could start in the first quarter of 2011, with a roll-out in line with the firm's multichannel push in the third quarter.

In 2008, the firm replaced Business Objects and Hyperion business intelligence tools in favour of supplier Board. It will continue to use the product, but as the efforts to improve customer data use continue, Schofield will be looking at "much more powerful" customer relationship management tools in the near future.

Logistics is part of Schofield's responsibilities and though that area is "ticking along nicely", there could be IT changes in the firm's cosmetics operation, which has been predominantly manual in terms of how frequently products are delivered as well as shelf allocation.

Collaboration on the cards

Harvey Nichols' strategy is to build on its existing IT set-up rather than replacing, but the multichannel drive could mean some changes ahead in terms of supplier partnerships.

"We are at a stage where there will be some significant integration requirements at the till point, so it becomes potentially more cost-effective to look at a start-from-scratch exercise.

Sharing best practice in terms of supplier management is a topic that Schofield often talks about with some of his peers, namely Paul Maxwell, who is currently IT director at House of Fraser and previously head of product systems at Debenhams, where he met Schofield.

"There is no reason why we shouldn't share basics ideas and thoughts around the use of technology, vendors and any good or bad experiences. We are in different markets and in any case, it is not about what technology you've got, but what you do with it," he said.

"If a company has got this or that merchandising or point-of-sale system and uses that for customer [information] capture, why is that a big secret? I can go and see the till at a shop myself anyway."

Team dynamics

Since taking over store operations in addition to IT and logistics last year, Schofield had to make some changes in the technology department to reflect his extended set of responsibilities.

"Because my role has broadened I had to consciously back away from IT a bit in terms of day-to-day management," he said.

Two senior positions - IT and IS managers - were created, so daily running of development and infrastructure is covered. Both individuals were promoted from within.

According to Schofield, the most significant change to his job was taking on the global operations - he looks after six stores directly, with their respective managers reporting into him.

"It is all fine from an operational perspective, but it is stretching in terms of time. I also have six experienced store managers reporting into me, and to walk around a store and talk about fixture positions and brand adjacencies is kind of hard, but is just a question of learning," he said.

According to Schofield, he is still very close to IT despite the fact that daily project prioritisation is now covered by his senior management appointments.

"It is the only option given the role I have, I still try to chip into [technology] projects whenever I can or when I am needed, but I can't do all the three to the level I would like to," he admitted.

"I still steer [technology] and I know what is going on, but you have to learn to let people develop below you and hopefully they can bring something else to the party."

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