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CIO interview: David Walmsley, chief digital and omni-channel officer, Pandora

The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic could have been a disaster for the jeweller, but due to its digital transformation programme, it was ready to carry on serving its customers online

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Jewellery specialist Pandora relies on the strong personal relationships it builds with its customers. Being able to interact face-to-face with an experienced salesperson makes a big difference to people who buy the firm’s jewellery. 

“The product is very personal – the choice of charms on one of our bracelets reflects your life, your loves, your family, and so on,” says David Walmsley, chief digital and omni-channel officer at Pandora. “The store is really the linchpin of our customer experience, but in Covid that was removed.” 

That could have been the makings of a crisis for a business that has traditionally relied on building customer relationships on the shop floor rather than just through online channels. However, while the coronavirus pandemic provided a significant test for its business operations, Walmsley and his colleagues had already spent more than a year working on a digital transformation programme to help Pandora hone its omni-channel approach

When lockdown came, the company was ready to carry on serving its customers online – and the result has been a big boost in e-commerce sales. “We knew that digital was going to be a very significant part of our customer experience going forwards,” he says.

Becoming part of the business 

Walmsley joined Pandora in April 2019. He is a member of the Pandora executive committee and reports to chief executive Alexander Lacik. A former digital executive at House of Fraser, Marks and Spencer and Dixons Retail, Walmsley was intrigued by the opportunity to join the business for a number of reasons. 

First, the global spread of the organisation. He’d worked in UK-based organisations with an international footprint, but he says Pandora – which has its headquarters in Copenhagen, Denmark – is a genuinely global organisation, with 2,700 stores around the world. “That’s super-exciting because it creates a whole level of additional complexity and interest,” he says. 

Second, the product. Walmsley says he’s helped his employers sell everything from financial services to advertising during his long digital career. “It’s nice to help sell a beautiful product,” he says of his executive role at Pandora. 

Finally, he says the organisation had been going through “challenging times” and was just starting its business transformation initiative, known as Programme NOW. “I really wanted to be part of that mission – and we’ve been on that charge ever since,” he says.

Making the customer happy 

Programme NOW aims to use digital technology to improve customer engagement.

“It’s about a reset and reclarification of the main purpose and mission of the business,” says Walmsley. “Every part of Programme NOW is focused on the customer and what it is we can provide to them and how can we make them happy.”

“We streamlined the aesthetics of the Pandora website to make it a much more pleasurable shopping experience and really drove our omni-channel development” 
David Walmsley, Pandora

Pandora’s digital transformation has been underpinned by technology specialist Adobe, using key services such as Adobe Experience Manager, which helps translate content for business units around the globe and allows the firm to deliver a more customer-centric approach when paired with the marketing technology Adobe Campaign.

“We’re in the market constantly for partners who understand customer-centricity. From a technology point of view, whether it’s Adobe or Salesforce or any of the other big tech houses, the key for me is the thoughtfulness of their big-picture roadmap and the way in which they integrate other systems and services,” says Walmsley.

“Adobe invests in the integration, they invest in that strategy piece, and I think that’s why they’ve got a really clear view of the role that they can play for people like us. That helps – rather than turning up and claiming to be all things to all people, they have a very focused mission and that helps us understand how they can fit into our overall ecosystem.” 

Pushing digital transformation 

While coronavirus created a new set of trials for the business in 2020, Walmsley’s team was able to help the business cope because the foundations of Pandora’s digital transformation programme had been built through 2019. “It was about all that critical, but not necessarily exciting, stuff to people in the outside world,” he reflects. 

The company runs 14 main e-commerce websites around the world. When Walmsley joined, these sites were on relatively independent code bases. Since 2019, he has helped to consolidate a lot of the firm’s underlying web technology. E-commerce systems have been simplified, performance increased and operations stabilised.

“We streamlined the aesthetics of the website and made it a much more pleasurable shopping experience,” he says. “It felt like a product catalogue before then and we really drove our omni-channel development.” 

The impact of this digital transformation work could be seen in trading results through late 2019, with a 25% year-on-year growth in global e-commerce sales in the final quarter. This growth continued and resulted in a 30% year-on-year increase in the first quarter of 2020. 

When lockdown came in spring, Pandora transformed – like many other retailers – to a pure-play e-commerce operation. It was at that point that online sales hit new heights, growing by 176% year-on-year in the second quarter of 2020. Walmsley says the dedicated efforts of his digital team through the previous 12 months paved the way for this switch. 

“Pandora overperformed versus other speciality retailers. We saw, not just our customers coming to the digital channels, but the digital channels being able to perform and convert sales at a higher rate. That’s really an investment in digital paying off for us,” he says.

Embracing e-commerce innovation 

Walmsley recognises that the timing of Pandora’s digital transformation programme has been apposite. However, his team hasn’t rested on its laurels. He says there’s been a continued effort to drive e-commerce innovation at the company in the past 12 months.

“We really put our foot to the floor with digital through 2020. We invested in the digital hub in Copenhagen, we’ve recruited people from around the world to relocate to Copenhagen through Covid. We’ve built a team of 120 digital experts in Copenhagen from at least 20 nations to build a diverse community,” he says.

“We’ve been driving forward on the digital experience. It really feels like Pandora is on a major momentum kick with all-things-digital right now” 

David Walmsley, Pandora

“We’ve also been driving forward on the digital experience, which means we’ve been able to build some really fantastic things, such as virtual try-ons, virtual selling assistance and more omni-channel rollouts. It really feels like Pandora is on a major momentum kick with all-things-digital right now.” 

Walmsley gives other examples. The company set up video chat on its websites, so customers could still speak with socially distanced staff members and receive online advice. “It was about trying to replicate the best of the store experience,” he says. 

When stores reopened prior to the current UK lockdown, Pandora provided virtual queuing, so that customers didn’t have to wait outside the stores. Customers could scan a QR code and receive a timed slot. “We’d give people reminders, so they could go off around town to do other things and not have to physically stand still in one place,” he says.

Supporting agile development 

Walmsley says the first goal for his team during the next couple of years is to “keep our foot to the floor” when it comes to using digital transformation to continue improving the consumer experience. 

“That’s everything from how we appear on Instagram, through to how the parcel turns up at your doorstep, and on to walking into any of our stores after you’ve just bought something online, and for the stores to find it and recognise it,” he says. “That means focusing on the plumbing under the surface, the foundational layers that are needed to enable that.”

The aim here will be to use agile-focused development teams to develop new experiences at pace. Walmsley says some of the pioneering ideas his team pushed through last year – such as virtual queuing and online video selling – have helped to build a strong common cause between the digital and retail teams.

“We’ve accelerated that relationship because of Covid, but that gives us a great platform into 2021 and 2022 to focus on developing the customer experience,” says Walmsley, adding that his key aim going forward is to take digital technologies and mindsets and apply that innovative approach to some of the broader challenges across the organisation. 

“That’s about getting the right product in front of the right customer at the right time and improving our supply chain. At the heart of our business is our manual crafting and manufacturing facilities in Thailand,” he says. “It's really a core part of our business and integration there is super-important. We want to think about how digital techniques and data-driven decision-making can be applied in manufacturing as well.” 

Creating a great online experience 

Walmsley says the long-term aim is to create a genuinely omni-channel business. “Any time our customers interact with us, they get a consistent experience. I think a business that responds to not just customer need, but customer desire, will be one step ahead.”

“A really good salesperson can read you as a customer, understand what you might be interested in, and surprise you and delight you. That’s the space I want to get Pandora into from a digital perspective – that ability to create magic in the shopping experience”
David Walmsley, Pandora

While Pandora has shown that it’s possible to transform the online retail experience, there’s still more work to do. Walmsley reflects on his own experiences as a consumer buying books in a physical store and talks of “serendipitous moments – the things you weren’t expecting, the things you didn’t even know you’d be interested in”. 

Walmsley believes there’s no reason why high street retailers can’t create similarly enjoyable experiences online. However, he also says reaching that stage will require a great deal of effort. It’s something he’s looking forward to achieving during the next few years.

“The store experience, whether it’s for books or jewellery, is a highly personalised experience. A really good salesperson can read you as a customer, understand what you might be interested in, and surprise you and delight you. That’s the space I want to get Pandora into from a digital perspective – that ability to create magic in the shopping experience,” he says. 

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