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CIO interview: Martin Draper, CIO and change director, Liberty London

Department store’s IT leader is bringing a traditional retail business into the digital, omnichannel age

Martin Draper considers himself  “one of the luckiest individuals” working in his sector at present. Not only because he gets to work at one of London’s most iconic shopping locations, but also because he is the CIO and change director responsible for ushering traditional retailer Liberty into the digital era.

Backed by his executive board, the IT leader, hired in 2016 from another luxury department store, Harrods, has a mission to deliver technological change at the 144-year-old company, and lead it through a business operating model change.

Over the past three years, Liberty’s IT has undergone significant modernisation, with the introduction of the Salesforce Commerce Cloud and stabilisation of the Infor M3 enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform. With the basics in place, the focus for 2019 is on enhancing the company’s omnichannel capability.

“There is a very strong recognition that crafting and delivering a suite of customer journeys and interactions of the future can’t be done without some really clever technology delivery,” says Draper. “But we are a traditional organisation with a strong heritage, so blending that with new digital channels and capabilities needs to be done carefully.

“If we don’t recognise the necessity to deliver to our roadmap, we will follow some of the other brands that have suffered over recent years. We have a strong foundational growth across aspects of our retail, wholesale and product businesses today that we want to build on for the next four years.

“That is underpinned by a concept of joining the channels and the businesses together to represent one holistic brand. We will enable that through some clever technology and organisational choices.”

Omnichannel focus

The final year of Draper’s four-year strategy and the months beyond will be all about working towards a much more sophisticated target architecture to deliver “exemplary customer experiences” and profit growth, by joining up the company’s various transactional channels and enhancing other related core platforms in the back-end.

“The next 12 months will be all about omnichannel – recognising that exposing customers to our legacy processes is an unacceptable option in modern retailing,” says Draper. “Our priority in the near term is to put the customer at the centre of what we deliver, versus solving any technology legacy.

“We will be focusing on enabling the customer to engage and transact with us from multiple devices – physical or digital – and traverse a whole set of complex customer journeys, bearing in mind that we want to keep our promise to the customer.

“Customers interact with us at Liberty because of who we are, because we are unapologetically eccentric. We don’t want to lose the essence of what our customer recognises us for. We want to drag some of those capabilities into the new age because our customers are getting younger, more affluent, more digitally connected and they expect to interact with us in a very different way.”

Deliverables for the coming months will include the development and implementation of a new order management platform, an integration platform, omnichannel payments capabilities, and, according to Draper, “some interesting options” to the retailer’s loyalty programme.

“We will be breaking down the silos between our retail and our wholesale offering, and then inside of retail, breaking down silos between online and offline, while using some clever orchestrating capabilities in and around the concept of order management,” he says.

“We’ve got to develop our brand across a whole range of scenarios, rather than just relying on traditional retail. The idea is to develop our reach beyond what a lot of people only see us as, which is the shop”
Martin Draper, Liberty

Commenting on the order management capabilities underpinning omnichannel improvements, Draper says the project will include an element of “going back to some of the basics about retailing”. But a lot of the work the IT team will be focusing on will be around systems integration, to connect capabilities, platforms and services in the company’s retail and wholesale ecosystem and improve product information, pricing, digital assets and attribution.

“The idea is to stitch this together, allowing us to put the Liberty stamp on how we interact with the customer,” he says. “That way, we can reduce the time to market and use our new data integration capabilities to interact with our supply base as a whole.

“We want to make those data interactions with our suppliers and their concessions much simpler and much more automated, and that’s a big part of the technology programme for 2019.”

Liberty’s IT team is also working on other customer-facing projects, such as in-store technology. Draper sees this as “both a challenge and an opportunity”, but says he has an eye on some “incredible opportunities” that the retailer could exploit. The firm has recently rolled out in-store Wi-Fi and new infrastructure to support its upcoming projects.

“We are about the experience and not necessarily just about the transaction,” says Draper. “There are some incredible opportunities available in augmented reality, with mobile devices. We can make the window displays do things that we’ve never previously imagined – that is definitely on my wish list.

“The in-store experience will exploit technology in a slightly different way and we will use technology for experience, for showcasing the product in-situ, and it will be more subtle than absolutely in your face. In-store technology will be visible through the delivery, through the messaging. It won’t be there just for the technology’s sake.”

The business of analytics

To enable the changes required to unlock the potential of omnichannel, Liberty has also introduced a data science department to develop “less traditional business intelligence and reporting capabilities” under an ad-hoc model, including data lake capabilities,says Draper. The company is working with Microsoft on propositions around structured and unstructured data in Azure to develop new insights.

“I am very excited about what our data analytics efforts are going to drive, and some of the questions and some of the behavioural changes that will emerge,” he says.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning also have a place in the retailer’s IT strategy as the digital transformation progresses. The CIO believes Liberty is unusual in that respect because it has already deployed a platform-as-a-service machine learning capability supplied by Relex Solutions, which uses trading history to create sophisticated forecasting for demand on stock.

“We have one store and one warehouse and were historically challenged to support two channels by making sure that we have the right stock across all categories in the right place,” says Draper. “For example, we used to hold too much beauty stock in the store itself, and therefore it wasn’t available to sell online.

“With the Relex product, we throw trading data from both channels into their machine learning platform. It drives the replenishment requirement for stock to move from the warehouse into our store and then beyond into the supply chain for reorder – the elusive ‘right stock at the right time in the right place’.

“The real value of that particular program is not only does it do forecasting recommendations, but we execute on those recommendations as well, having automated the creation of replenishment requirements.”

Following the introduction of machine learning, availability statistics for both Liberty’s store and the web “have gone absolutely through the roof”, says Draper.

“We are in and around 95% across most categories that have gone live. Before we launched, we were averaging 60-70% and sometimes lower,” he says, adding that Liberty is now increasing its investment in more sophisticated machine learning capabilities.

“I am very excited about cloud and Azure and how those technologies allow us to do things quicker, easier and more cost- efficiently than ever,” he adds.

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According to Draper, such analytics-enabled improvements lead to more business, as enhancements allow the retailer to talk to suppliers about exclusivity around how they want to work inside the Liberty brand – as a supplier, as a concession in the store, or working on something on the Liberty brand in collaboration, for example by using the firm’s fabric design capability for a new product line.

“We’ve got to develop our brand across a whole range of scenarios, rather than just relying on traditional retail,” says Draper. “The idea is to develop our reach beyond what a lot of people only see us as, which is the shop. This is absolutely where all of our strategic opportunities lie.

“All of this is driven by data, collaboration, integration, and working in a different way. It is recognising that your change organisation can’t be just something that your business-as-usual operation does in its spare time. But actually it’s two sets of individuals, two sets of thinking, two sets of accountability.

“We are definitely data-driven and are making more considered choices in terms of target architecture technology, but the really important piece is organising ourselves in a different way to deliver that transformation.”

Honesty and ambition

Draper says Liberty has some “very good technology choices” following its IT revamp and the sophistication of value-adding systems that are already taking place, and the challenge is no longer to do with technology.

“What we have is legacy operating models and legacy business processes, more than legacy technology,” he says. “Much of 2018 has been about being honest about what we’re starting with, being ambitious in terms of a target architecture, but then developing a fairly aggressive roadmap that allows us to try and do a little bit of everything at once.

“I think we’re very confident that we’ve curated our roadmap in such a way that we can do both at the same time.”

Projects will require “an amazing amount of orchestration and monitoring and new capabilities”, says Draper. The company has also set up a new project management office to help handle work programmes.

When it comes to driving IT-enabled business change, Draper emphasises the need to be honest about what can be achieved, as well as being aggressive, giving visibility and managing change in communication. Those elements are more important than any difficulties around stringing technology together, he says.

“The technology layer is getting easier and barriers are coming down more quickly than ever,” says Draper.

“The biggest challenge to people in my position now is: can the new business processes keep up with the speed of technology change? The technology change is starting to be understood and deployed in more ingenious ways. The question for traditional businesses is: can they change the way they operate as quickly as the technology is changing? That is what CIOs need to think about.”

As for his own challenges, Draper is optimistic about his team’s skills and the ability of the business to deliver on what has been set out in its digital transformation strategy. “Liberty is a can-do place,” he says. “It has a unique bias to action, and an executive team that would rather us be aggressive in what we’re striving to deliver, than being overly cautious. My roadmap reflects that desire exactly.” 

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