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Whittard spills the tea about its use of technology

CFO and IT manager of British hot beverages brand Whittard explains the firm’s recent investment in technology ahead of the business’s expansion into China

Born from a small, one-man business in the late 1800s, Whittard of Chelsea deals in one of the core products of British culture – a good cup of tea.

The company’s history has seen many twists and turns, including the loss of its warehouse in the Second World War, and more recently going into administration in 2008 before being bought by a new company, which in turn made the brand profitable again through experimentation and creativity.

For many retailers that have been around for so long, it can be difficult to adopt new technologies and experiment with ideas.

But Whittard has been using technology to suit modern customer needs, including electronic receipts, and click-and-reserve and click-and-collect services available online and in store. It offers these services through a combination of IT offerings, among them Cegid and Salesforce Commerce Cloud.

Simon Watson, IT manager for Whittard of Chelsea, says: “We’ve been a Cegid customer since 2012, and we’re running Cegid in 50 stores with 100 tills, with integrated omni-channel so you can shop in store, or shop and reserve, or shop and collect from our website. We’re integrating that and we’re using that with Salesforce Commerce Cloud.

Change is brewing

The brand now wants to focus not only on how to offer customers the best service possible, but how to retain them.

It’s been upgrading till systems in stores – half of which have been replaced in the past year – with the aim of creating a faster customer service, as well as ensuring the “the right stock is in the right place at the right time”.

The past year also saw the firm virtualise the back-end platform its Cegid solution runs on, as well as refreshing a large amount of the retailer’s hardware.

“It’s really about trying to improve the customer service in store,” Watson says. “We’re investing in the infrastructure as well, we’re putting a significantly better infrastructure in stores.”

At the core of Whittard’s upgrades is preparing for its upcoming projects, one of which, according to the firm’s chief financial officer, Nathan Smith, is a focus on data: “We’re looking to improve on data, we’re using Qlik as a data analytics tool.”

The goal of using data analytics is primarily to allow the firm’s staff to produce reports more easily, as currently many manual processes are used for reporting, then staff will be retrained to be able to analyse reports rather than just produce them.

“[Staff] produce reports and I ask, ‘What does it say?”, and they say ‘I don’t know’. I’d rather they had the reports in their hands and say, ‘I’m doing this, this and this to drive the change’, so we want much more data-driven decision making from it, and one version of the truth,” says Smith.

While the project is in its early days, he says it’s a “key project in the business”, and IT manager Watson adds how the difficulty has arisen from siloed systems.

“We’ve got multiple systems, some of which have got similar information in them,” Watson says, meaning people may view one system, with one version of the truth, and “not understand they’re getting something slightly different to someone else”.

Stores and more

Stores are increasingly becoming places for people to meet, build a community and experience the touch-and-feel of a product before buying it, in many cases giving physical stores relevance as well as forcing them to adapt to the modern customer.

With a brand that appeals to so many different ages and types of people, Whittard has been experimenting with other formats for some of its 50 UK stores, such as its “café concept” stores in London’s Covent Garden and Glasgow where customers can stay and drink tea rather than buy it for home.

Watson muses over the Amazon Go style stores that are increasingly coming to the forefront, and says: “It’s a clever concept, and it’s one to watch. It’s very experimental, you can try 10 things and nine of them will fail, but if you find the one that works...”

The firm’s other main focus is set on expanding into China.

Laughing about the irony of Chinese customers buying tea from a British company, Smith says: “The big project is to grow in China. We’ve just hired a general manager who is in market, she’s been in China for the past two months – and the idea is to grow not only our online presence, but our offline presence as well. That will come in time.”

The new market is a “huge opportunity” for the business, says Smith, who says the draw of British tea in China– a country that already manufactures so much tea – is in the blends. “[It’s] a quintessentially British product which is an affordable luxury,” he adds. 

But like many retailers that expand into markets outside of the UK, Smith raises concerns about ensuring the Chinese arm of the business doesn’t become siloed. The Chinese arm is currently a separate subsidiary company, but the brand is determined to keep the systems, processes and service consistent.

“We will make sure we’ve got everything set up when we’re there – we need the infrastructure, our systems, our people, and our supply chain,” says Smith.

Whether looking at Whittard’s origins as a tea shop in the 1890s, or the modern offering of increasingly popular iced drinks, as well as a technology-driven service, the brand has always been adaptable, and Smith says the plan is to “keep growing”.

“We all know and believe in the brand, so [growth] is really the aim in the next three years,” he adds.

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