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CIO interview: Mike Thomas, CIO, Hobbycraft

The CIO of Hobbycraft, Mike Thomas, speaks to Computer Weekly about the art of digital transformation in retail, the importance of customer experience and getting a good return on investment

Arts and crafts superstore retail chain Hobbycraft is in the midst of a programme to replace and improve its back-office and web-based systems to enhance operational efficiency and the customer experience online. 

CIO Mike Thomas joined Hobbycraft on an interim basis in 2011 to run the company’s technology strategy. Then, 18 months later, he found himself hired on a permanent basis, and has been there since. 

“I joined Hobbycraft to review the IT systems and infrastructure – to establish its capability, as well as its capacity to support ambitious future growth projections,” Thomas tells Computer Weekly. “My findings concluded that a wholesale systems replacement was required.”

The first step of the new technology strategy for the company was choosing an enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform to replace the mix of package and bespoke core applications supporting the company. This included in-store and business intelligence (BI) platforms.

Prior to that, Thomas engaged the senior management team to evaluate and endorse his recommendations. Over the 18 months that followed, the CIO led the replacement programme. The new ERP systems are based on Microsoft Dynamics NAV from channel partner K3 Retail.

Additionally, a small number of specialist bolt-on systems, hosted off-site with Starcom, were implemented. A comprehensive upgrade to the company’s demand planning and replenishment systems was also carried out. 

Another significant development was the migration to Office 365 email for the company’s approximately 1,000 internal users across 90 stores, head office and the distribution centres. 

According to Thomas, other alternatives including Google Mail were considered, but the business chose Microsoft for cultural reasons. 

“We previously used Exchange, and we use Windows as well as a Microsoft ERP, so the Microsoft look and feel is something people are familiar with. Had we migrated to Gmail, people would have had to get used to something completely different, so we decided to for the safer option.”

Developing omni-channel 

The main projects IT has delivered in 2017 align with Hobbycraft’s business plan, in which a key pillar is the improvement of the customer experience online and through mobile platforms. 

“Our previous website wasn’t very good – it didn’t carry the full range and wasn’t mobile-friendly. We have addressed all this, and will be making more improvements in the coming months,” says Thomas. 

According to the IT chief, an example of work due to land shortly is a progressive web upgrade for customers shopping through their smartphones – an important step given that over half of Hobbycraft’s customer traffic comes from the mobile channel. 

Additional work included the implementation of user-generated content into the company’s website. “Further improvements are intended to provide a seamless and convenient in-store and online shopping experience for our customers,” says Thomas. 

The company wants to ensure it has the omni-channel bases covered, so in addition to the website improvements, it also plans to upgrade the technology supporting physical stores over the next few months, such as customer Wi-Fi speed in-store and its click-and-collect proposition. 

During 2018, the company will also evaluate its customer relationship management (CRM) platform and make improvements to it. Other customer-facing projects include the enhancement of Hobbycraft Club, a customer platform created from scratch a couple of years ago – now with two million members. By tracking what customers are buying online or in-store, the company has been able to better target its campaigns and promotions. 

Looking forward 

The pace of change in retail means that as well as the improvements it has already made, Hobbycraft will need to keep on its toes when it comes to innovation. But not every new technology will be applicable to the business, Thomas believes. 

“I am a strong advocate of not finding a technology solution and then trying to find the problem to address,” the IT executive says. An example is the roadmap for the website improvements. 

“We made our website responsive when this was fairly innovative, and we are now taking the next step in that journey,” he points out, adding that the company will aim to deliver an “app-like” experience on mobile devices, as well as making the web presence more agile and engaging for users. 

Now that the back-office foundations are in place, it is possible to get the company’s small eight-person team more involved in strategic and innovative projects, says Thomas. This is made possible because the day-to-day IT needs of the company are covered mostly by third parties. 

Like most CIOs, getting a good return on investment was the main brief when Thomas started, and this will remain a key challenge in the months to come. A significant element of this is the ability to consistently reduce the cost of the overall IT operation. 

“Selection of [external] partners is critical to our success, so we spend time selecting the best at a price we can afford. Suppliers are clearly experts in their field – in some respects that could be perceived as more expensive, but it is undeniable they get access to a lot more resource and are very responsive,” says Thomas. 

“Most are on three-year contracts, which we carefully review 12 months ahead of renewal, and we have consistently been able to reduce the cost of these contracts as we improve efficiency,” he adds. 

“Having worked in much larger organisations, I am often surprised by how much you can do with limited resource. And that is clearly possible.”

Read more retail CIO interviews from Computer Weekly

  • House of Fraser CIO Julian Burnett talks about his role in the business, key achievements and his plans for long-term and lasting digital transformation.
  • Paul Coby, IT director at John Lewis, believes retailers will need to move with changing customer patterns and demands to survive the omni-channel shift. 

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