High street retailer John Lewis has fared better than most in the recession. With sales up in January by over 8% year on year, the retailer has the luxury of being able to invest in its IT department.
Paul Coby (pictured), CIO of John Lewis, said his focus in 2012 will be to invest in IT to grow the company, and in particular to give John Lewis customers a seamless experience, whether they buy from high street shops or online.
“We are increasing our investment in technology and we are recruiting 50 new IT partners,” he said in an interview to accompany the 2012 Computer Weekly/TechTarget IT priorities survey.
John Lewis technology updates
Coby has two major projects underway this year. The first is a state-of-the-art electronic point of sale system that will replace 1980's technology.
“We put that in over Christmas and New Year to test it, and it's really done fantastically well. I am accelerating the roll-out, and it's going to be in 12 of our stores this year,” he said.
The second project is an updated website. The company plans to replace its 10-year-old technology with a platform from Oracle.
“Our current website is fantastic. In terms of volumes it does fantastically well. Sales over Christmas were up 28%,” he said. “But it's 10 years old, so we need a platform that will suit us for the next decade.”
With online sales growing rapidly, Coby expects the new website to pay for itself quickly. But more importantly, it will be a stepping stone to a larger strategic vision.
Technology and business integration
Coby is working with fellow directors in John Lewis on a project to integrate the technology and business processes behind its three sales channels – in store, the web and mobile.
“Our current website is fantastic, but it's 10 years old, so we need a platform that will suit us for the next decade"
Paul Coby, CIO, John Lewis
“At the moment, we have systems in different channels, so there is a whole set of online systems and in-store systems, and we are building mobile systems," he said. "Our vision is to build a single order management programme.”
The project will make it simpler for John Lewis to manage customer orders internally, and promises to make life easier for John Lewis shoppers, giving them a wider range of options.
“Sometimes you want to go into a shop and get expert advice from one of our partners. Sometimes you might want to use one of our kiosks. Sometimes you look in a shop and you want to check out the reviews and prices, so you scan the product and get the information on it. It's how you integrate all of that,” he said.
Coby is running a pilot to test how John Lewis partners can use tablets in stores to help customers. Assistants can use the tablets to show the complete range of products and to check what’s in stock.
Putting customers first
He is working with the supermarket Waitrose, also part of the John Lewis group, to create a customer data warehouse that will help the organisation understand its customers' shopping habits.
"Our vision is to build a single order management programme”
Paul Coby, CIO, John Lewis
The project will allow John Lewis to offer its customers a more personalised service, but Coby is very aware of the need to respect customers' privacy.
“One of our core values is protecting customer data, but also respecting the trust of our customers. So everything we do will be at the discretion of our customers," he said. “But it will give us the ability to understand what our customers want, what they are buying from us and, more importantly, how to give them what they want.”
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Meanwhile, Coby is taking John Lewis through a corporate IT transformation programme, which will include, among other projects, creating a shared service for IT across the group.
The partner service division will bring together the transactional elements of finance and human resources, including the IT infrastructure behind them, across the group.
“This is clearly about providing an effective service in support of these areas. Running IT efficiently and effectively is going to be part of that mission,” said Coby.
Cost-effective IT operations
Coby also is focused on keeping the day-to-day IT systems running, ensuring they are running in a cost-effective way.
“We have a very ambitious growth plan. This year, we are opening three ‘at homes’, which are the small-format store. And Stratford, of course, leading up to the Olympics, which is a full-format store,” he said.
“This year, opening in Exeter will be a store with the full format of John Lewis, on a smaller footprint. That is going to be enabled by the use of technology. And we have a store in Birmingham coming up.”
All of these will mean more work for the IT department and more investment in technology.