Executive interview: Chris McShane, MD, Halfords Mobile Experts

Cycling and motoring retailer Halfords has developed its own service management software, which it is now taking to market

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Retailer Halfords is on a journey to expand its focus on the consumer into the business-to-business (B2B) sector, acquiring new technology, technicians and a network of garages along the way.

The 125-year-old retailer, traditionally known for selling bicycles and car parts, is part of the UK’s Cycle to Work scheme and has a significant motoring business where 40% of the products it sells are Halfords-branded. More recently, it has been building up the service side of its business and developing software to support that move.

Describing the company’s business expansion,  Chris McShane, managing director of Halfords Mobile Experts, says: “Our relatively recent two- to three-year strategy has been a shift from solely being a retail and services business to overall service provision and B2B services.”

Along with its 404 retail stores, Halfords operates 372 garages and, over the past 18 months, has expanded its fleet of mobile repair vans from eight to 350. These are used to deliver services to consumers at home, such as replacing a flat tyre. McShane says the company also operates 180 mobile vans for commercial customers, supporting the emergency services and drivers of heavy goods vehicles, tractors and buses.

During the pandemic, Halfords saw a shift in consumer demand, with people opting for convenience. McShane says this meant it needed to become a truly omni-channel business, offering the most convenient option for its customers, whether in-store, at home or online.

It delivers this flexibility through location-agnostic technology, which uses a postcode and latitude and longitude data to determine where the service needs to be carried out. Halfords then works out how long a particular service request should take, finds a technician and optimises the route, which is scheduled last thing at night for the next day.

“Our two- to three-year strategy has been a shift from solely being a retail and services business to overall service provision and B2B services”

Chris McShane, Halfords

Halfords also offers a same-day service for certain service requests, as well as a “smart option” which allows customers to book a time slot for the technician. Its service covers about 83% of the UK.

“It is similar to a breakdown service,” says McShane. “We could provide a same-day service, such as for a dead battery or flat tyre, but we don’t do everything.” Oil changes, tow bar fittings, and anything that requires a ramp to raise the vehicle is not available from its mobile fleet.

Growing into software

Halfords has also developed its own software to power its growing services business.

“We thought about how to utilise technology to provide services,” says McShane. “We work in a highly regulated industry, such as the compliance and legal regulations required for MOT tests, so recording of all activities is really important.”

The company built its own end-to-end service platform, which tracks the skills level of a technician, work hours and the work undertaken. “We understand how efficient our colleagues are and can work out efficiencies so the system is able to understand how long it takes to complete a job,” McShane adds.

It also uses the information captured to keep customers informed on the progress of their service job. “We track every interaction,” he says. “With an MoT, a technician uses a tablet to record test results. We also take photo and video footage of the car.”

In November 2019, Halfords acquired Tyres on the Drive, a mobile repair network which offered a mobile version of the services Halfords already offered in its garages. The purchased company also had its own software for optimising its fleet of mobile technicians.

“We ended up with a physical manifestation of this platform and a mobile field service platform which has been fantastic for our business and improved profitability,” says McShane.

The platform currently manages more than 70,000 services per week. The Halfords Mobile Expert van operation, which has a 4.8/5 Trustpilot rating, has seen a 70% increase in job productivity and more than 200% increase in utilisation since it started using the platform, demonstrating the potential for greater customer satisfaction.

International opportunities

Halfords has taken the platform to market, offering it as a cloud-based service through a new business called Avayler. And McShane has a new role as president and chief operating officer of the new business. “We can provide the platform for independent garages in the UK and internationally,” says McShane. “There are many businesses internationally that are similar to Halfords.”

Spearheaded through a new business operating out of the UK, the company aims to serve a global customer base of automotive service providers and retail organisations. Its first customer is American Tire Distributors (ATD), one of the largest independent suppliers to the replacement tyre market in North America and owner of the online tyre retailer Tirebuyer.com.

Looking at why Halfords is now offering a software platform, McShane says many companies that try to do their own services for motorists often struggle. “It is entirely about productivity – you need systematic intelligence to optimise jobs on the route,” he says.

Unlike other companies that specialise in selling field service support software, McShane says Avayler is built by the industry for the industry, as a platform targeted at the automotive sector.

While the core market is in motoring, the company also sees opportunities in retail, healthcare and utilities. For instance, McShane believes there is potential for Avayler to be used by mobile healthcare service providers who offer healthcare at home or to non-hospital locations. Discussing why this area of healthcare is a good fit for Avayler, he says: “It is a really complex service that has to be provided, the industry is highly regulated, routes need to be optimised and the supply chain is complex.”

As the company has grown in service provision, McShane says technology has also grown to become a core part of the business. The tech team at Avayler is led by Ric Clarke, co-founder and chief technology officer of Tyres on the Drive. The team of 40 has around 30 in-house software engineers, and over the next 18 months, McShane expects the tech team to grow to 45 people.

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