John Lewis IT director Paul Coby on the challenges of Christmas

Paul Coby faces his second Christmas as IT director at John Lewis. He talks exclusively to Computer Weekly about the festive IT challenge

Paul Coby faces his second Christmas as IT director at department store chain John Lewis. Since joining the retailer in March 2011, after many years as CIO at British Airways, he has embraced what he calls the "retail revolution" brought about by technology, and is leading the IT aspects of the firm's "omnichannel" retail vision to combine physical and digital worlds into a seamless shopping experience. Computer Weekly asked him about the challenges of the seasonal shopping peak. 

What have been the main highlights of technology-related work during the run-up to Christmas?

Something that was really exciting for us was the launch of our much-awaited Snowman ad. As we did last year, we launched the ad on social media before it went live on TV and we found that works extremely well. We had well over two-and-a-half million views and that is really exciting to see.

We also have a rather nice John Lewis Christmas annual that we have launched as an iPad app which is downloadable free from the App store. It is a gorgeous printed annual but also an app.

The main point is we are showing how we are integrating conventional advertising with the social media world and finding that things like this do provide a new dimension in connecting with customers.

Would it be right to say that your arrival meant a new push when it comes to technology-led, customer-focused initiatives?

I wish I could say it was all down to me. I have obviously been 2000% behind our “omnichannel” retail vision and working hard to support our colleagues in delivering that. Omnichannel means that when you shop, the experience feels seamless between channels. It is about creating what we believe is a new way people will shop and not just about being in a building or online, but joining these things up.

But it isn't just me and I would not want to come across as "I saved the world". The fact is that at John Lewis it is all about changing the retail world together and I think that we are starting on that – I wouldn’t say we are there. Look at how we really integrate the Christmas experience online, on mobile, Twitter, YouTube. You see how we are talking about things in a very joined up way.

I would also say that we are leading the path in how omnichannel will look. But there is a lot more to come and my colleagues and I are working together to create a picture of how shopping will look like.

Omnichannel means that when you shop, the experience feels seamless between channels

Paul Coby, John Lewis

Can you give an example of a recent client-facing initiative that relied heavily on technology?

One of the things I can claim to be a part of is the store in Exeter. We have taken a building that is half the size of one of our conventional stores and the use of smart IT integrated with the shop experience enabled us to sell a much larger share of our assortment in a much smaller building.

We filled the wall with designs and enabled customers to go to a terminal where they could see all the assortment, colors and collect that in-store, have it delivered or pick it up later. It is a great example of how we are starting to integrate both worlds. We also put up screens around which are integrated to the product merchandising system in a very visual and interactive way with lots of information about the products.

What happens to other major ongoing back-office projects such as your electronic point-of-sale (Epos) roll-out during this time of the year?

In preparation for Christmas you stop changing things. It is not the time to make changes to anything. What I have learned is that the retail year is divided into phases. There is the first part of year when you are doing IT work, then there is the clearance in the summer, then a short window in the autumn where you can do some more IT work and after that your job is shut it all down and support the business as you go through what will be an extremely busy time.

With the Epos system in particular, we have been rolling it out throughout spring, then we stopped in the summer and resumed it in the autumn when we had some stores going live. We looked at our infrastructure, expanded capacity and started getting people trained. Then everyone starts getting ready for the peak.

What have you done with your website to ensure the online set-up copes with the demand expected during the festive season?

We looked at the forecast demand, worked with our infrastructure colleagues and increased the process and capacity, as well as how we monitor the website through the peak.

Every year we look at the demand and the growth online, and then we put new resources behind it. The normal IT budget has Christmas built into it - that goes into normal planning, a peak in the summer and a very big peak in Christmas. It is not something we look at in the middle of the year and say, “Oh my goodness, I better set some money aside for Christmas”. When you look at your normal capacity and volume planning you build that in, it is just life.

Do you set any specific expectations on your IT suppliers for the Christmas period?

Christmas is the busiest time of the year, so it is also essential that people stay focused on getting systems working effectively and well.  We ask of our suppliers what we ask of ourselves.

We have worked with IBM since the 1960s so there is an awful lot of IBM around. We also work with Cognizant and Zensar in application support, Cisco in terms of networks and Microsoft for the usual stuff. All these big companies have retail practices, they understand our annual cycle and they jolly well should. But I am pretty confident the suppliers we work with understand retail and understand us.

One of the key things here in terms of IT though, is that while we focus on having high-quality suppliers, technology is very much in the hands of our own partners.  

Once you get Christmas out of the way, what will be the main areas you will be focusing on?

We have an innovation initiative where we have companies pitching ideas around how we can use technology to enable the business and that was led by two new members of our leadership team - Sarah Venning, head of IT relationships and [former Sainsbury’s CTO] Julian Burnett, head of IT architecture.

We have some great ideas in social media and mobile coming in as a result of that initiative – for example, a company called Black Marble has some really interesting ideas about how can manage queues.

The Epos rollout has gone very well so far and that replaces systems from the 1990s and that will continue into next year. We are also looking at major investments in mid- and back-office, such as order management systems for online and shops to enable orders to be tracked in a much better way.

As part of a business-led supply chain review, we are also looking at potential investments in ERP systems. We really haven’t got as what you would recognise as an ERP system, so we would be basically replacing a mix of packaged systems and elements of proprietary tools. We have a request for information out at present so I think we would be deciding on that early next year.

Watch Paul Coby discuss the retail revolution at Computer Weekly's UKtech50 event


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