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CIO interview: Adam Warne, CIO, River Island

The privately owned fashion retailer places a premium on its high street presence, but sees digital innovation as key to improving customer service in stores

Experienced retail technologist Adam Warne made an important transition when he became CIO at high street fashion brand River Island in October 2021.

“I’ve been in retail for 20 years now; technology for 25 years,” he says. “But until I joined River Island, all of my experience had been with digital pure-plays. One of the big things I recognised was that I had a huge hole in my CV. I couldn’t call myself a retailer if I’d never coped with stores before.”

More than 18 months later, after joining the company from digital retailer N Brown, Warne has had plenty of opportunity to get a feel for the traditional, physical shopping experience. River Island has 250 stores in the UK, with a range of franchises, partners and concessions in locations around the globe, including North America, Europe and the Middle East.

“The thing that really impressed me was how they thought about that store estate,” says Warne. “They weren’t a retailer that was trying to get rid of their stories and who saw them as a cost. They were really proud of their estate, actually – and today we see our stores as a real opportunity to do something different from a customer experience perspective.”

Getting used to the culture

When he joined River Island in late 2021, the business was still dealing with the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, including how to interview job candidates – such as Warne – in a socially distanced manner.

“All of my interviews were done on Zoom and Teams,” he says. “I asked lots of questions about the culture and the business. And then on my first day, I was walking into the office and I thought, ‘I don’t know any of these people. I’ve never met any of them in person’.”

Warne quickly discovered he was joining a welcoming business. “It’s like walking into a house for the first time – you just get a feel. And from the first step through the door to all my interactions 18 months later, it’s exactly as I thought,” he says.

“River Island is fast-paced, it’s interesting. We’re always trying to do the right thing, so we’ve got some pretty lofty and admirable sustainability targets. In fact, during the pandemic, we were one of the first businesses to take the decision to shut – we not only shut the stores, but we shut the distribution centre as well, because we wanted to protect our colleagues.”

Warne says the nature of the business is directly related to its private ownership. Rather than being listed on a stock exchange, River Island is still owned by the same family who started the brand in 1948. Private ownership drives an entrepreneurial culture across the business.

“We don’t have to go and have really complex meetings with tens of different stakeholders from investment firms,” he says. “Basically, it’s the family who run the business. And I think that’s something unusual in the industry. We’re retail’s best-kept secret if I’m being completely honest.”

Leading from the front

A technologist by trade, Warne realised at an early stage of his career that there were others who were better at dealing with bits and bytes – and that his talents lay elsewhere.

“I was better at telling the tech people what direction to head in,” says Warne, who honed his IT leadership skills at “I like to think I’m more strategic. But I am from a technical background.”

At River Island, Warne’s role covers three core elements. First, he’s responsible for technology strategy and making sure any investment in IT solves business problems or creates new opportunities: “That’s about making us more effective, more efficient and delivering a better customer experience across all of our channels.”

“We have rolled out smart fitting rooms and that is unique in the high street – we’re doing something really special for customers”

Adam Warne, River Island

Warne’s second role is centred on executing the digital strategy. “I’m not only responsible for technology, but change generally in the business,” he says.

His third role is about turning information into insight: “That’s all about how we can accelerate the business and make ourselves more effective through the wealth of data that we have.”

River Island’s technology team encompasses about 250 people, around two-thirds of whom are permanent members of staff. The company hires people from across the UK and mainland Europe to keep its time zone difference tight.

“And we operate in a hybrid way, so we do certain ceremonies in the office, but quite often people will work from home in the tech team,” he says.

Implementing the right systems

Looking back on his time at River Island, Warne simply says “it’s been a busy 18 months”. He’s led a range of digital transformation initiatives that include changes to enterprise systems and pioneering technological innovations.

The IT team has implemented Commercetools, a cloud-based platform for the digital side of the business, and it has transitioned the warehouse management system to Blue Yonder. “That was quite a big project,” says Warne.

The team has also overseen the implementation of the Microsoft Teams collaboration platform across the retail estate. “That roll-out means every single one of our colleagues – whether a temporary three-hour worker on a Saturday at Christmas or the chief executive – has the same comms and experiences,” he says.

“You can message anyone in the business, and you can watch all of the webinars that we do around mental health and learning and development. We treat all of our retail staff as first-class citizens, which again, I think is reasonably rare in retail.”

River Island is using the Snowflake Retail Data Cloud to bring its information together and to provide a trusted platform for innovation on behalf of its customers. The retailer has recently been trialling Snowpark, which is a developer framework that brings native SQL, Python, Java and Scala support to Snowflake.

“Speed, accessibility and the reliability of the results that we’re seeing is key,” says Warne. “I also don’t want to underplay the value of getting insights from places that you might not expect. That visibility gives people the ability to have conversations about things that they might not have had the opportunity to before.”

Making the most of data

When it comes to innovation, Warne’s team uses RFID sensors to support accurate product tracking across the supply chain and into its stores. Data from these sensors – allied to the company’s underlying Snowflake platform – means the business can do exciting things with the information it collects.

Each product has an RFID tag that provides a unique reference number that can be recognised in smart changing rooms that are equipped with interactive screens. Once a product is scanned, customers can see product information on-screen in the changing rooms and can also make a request to customer service, such as getting the same product in a different size.

“We have rolled out smart fitting rooms and that is unique in the high street – we’re doing something really special for customers,” says Warne, who recognises the data that comes through this system also provides benefits for the business.

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People across the organisation can gain valuable product performance insights, including instances where a product was tried on but not purchased. They can also learn if certain sizes are regularly swapped out.

By enriching its own product information with third-party data from the Snowflake Marketplace, such as weather trends or footfall data, River Island is building predictive models that are powered by machine learning, and unearthing new insights. “This is where data becomes action – and this is really where the value is for us,” says Warne.

He says the retailer’s tight grip on data and innovation means the IT team continues to explore more technology-led opportunities: “We’ve been doing some interesting things around self-serve checkout as well, which means that customers can walk out of a shop without the need to actually speak to anyone.”

Looking for new efficiencies

River Island is already exploring a range of ways that data can be used to make the business more efficient and boost the range of services it provides to customers. Warne expects more of the same during the next two years and he paints a picture of a business that will be using all kinds of emerging technologies to improve retail operations.

“It will be a business where technology is taking the heavy lifting out of the operation and we’re far more efficient and effective,” he says. “People will have more time to think about what’s next. What we’re not trying to do is replace humans with technology. We’re just trying to let our people have more time to do some challenging thinking.”

“We’re not trying to replace humans with technology. We’re just trying to let our people have more time to do some challenging thinking”
Adam Warne, River Island

Warne says the freedom to think creatively is important in the post-Covid age, especially as many employees in all kinds of sectors had to take a “head down” approach to work during the pandemic.

“People became focused on keeping the business running and were operationally focused,” he says. “I think some businesses have struggled to raise their head back up and look more towards the future.”

That forward-looking view is something he’s eager to establish at River Island, where he expects to use data to help “put efficiency on steroids” during the next two years. “That’s all about exploring how can we use some of this technology, such as artificial intelligence, to free up our talented people and let them have more time to do what they want to do,” he says.

Fashion is a really interesting market. People go to college to get into the industry. They don’t want to join a business that’s all about fashion and then just spend half their time keying stuff into systems. That’s not what they’re into. So, how can we use technology to turn River Island into more of a fashion business and less of a manual-effort business? That’s the key.”

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