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Interview: Paul Cooper, director of technology operations, River Island

Retailer River Island has had a recent in-store technology overhaul, making it easier for shop staff to cater to customers

River Island is a fashion brand that has been a staple on the UK’s high street since 1948 – even Paul Cooper, director of technology operations for the company, said his relationship with the retailer goes beyond starting at the business nine years ago.

“I grew up in a town where there was a River Island and when you'd go on your holidays with friends, you'd hit River Island and get your holiday gear,” he says.

But being almost 75 years' old does not mean the retailer has fallen behind - not only does it have more than 300 stores and a global e-commerce offering, River Island has recently added Scandit smart data capture to its employee-facing app.

Cooper says: “This has influenced a change in our corporate IT infrastructure that was previously never accessible. The opportunities this has unlocked have been really interesting and represented quite a paradigm shift for us in the use cases and experiences we can now enable.”

Covid beginnings

While the retailer’s most recent technology implementation is being utilised in stores, it was working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic that originally sparked the idea.

Cooper explains remote working saw the retailer adopt Microsoft Teams to implement unified communications throughout the business both to keep the firm running during lockdown, and to keep employees informed about the business’s plans.

He says: “That's really where putting Teams into stores and a frontline worker perspective really started to gain traction.”

Once people were back to physical shopping, the firm began thinking about how this new method of communicating across the business could be used in stores, especially as customer behaviour has shifted not just as a result of the pandemic, but over the last 10 years.

Initially the store had legacy devices which were unable to support Teams, meaning store staff were using their own personal devices to run Teams.

The legacy technology meant there were different devices for different tasks, each running proprietary software, and devices would have to be shared between up to four staff members at one time.

After some planning, employees on the shop floor were given Samsung Galaxy XCover Pro rugged smartphones, with stores having enough devices for everyone working to pick one up and log in for a more personalised experience.

Training staff how to use the devices hasn’t been difficult – Cooper points out the average age of staff and the intuitive nature of mobile phones has meant it’s “natural to kind of pick up and start working with it”.

Staff were trained with a one-page document, and in all the project took only eight weeks to roll out.

But the devices are not just equipped with Teams – the devices are part of a wider plan to build a better relationship between store staff and customers.

As well as Teams for communication and task assignments, the devices use its walkie-talkie feature for instant comms across the shop floor, and Scandit for product lookup.

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Store staff used to use a limited number of handheld devices whose sole purpose was scanning products. Now, Scandit is used on the Samsung Galaxy devices for checking on click-and-collect queries, looking into the availability of stock, finding stock information, and mobile point-of-sale.

“It was one of the key enablers that allowed us to move from the legacy enterprise device with a built-in scanner to then move to using the camera on the [Samsung] device as the scanner,” Cooper says.

“It's been really, really powerful. We've always had this term of 'the office in your pocket', your one device that you can you can operate with regardless of your destination within store, whether you’re front or back office, whether you're on denim, whether you're in footwear - you need to have the device and the capability that allows you to serve our customers.”

Introducing these new digital technologies saw River Island get rid of some legacy technologies, such as the handheld scanners and RF WiFi badges, while plugging Scandit into in-house systems the retailer already had.

Overall store service has become more efficient, processes are quicker, and customers are happy.

Future plans

Further expanding the digital store experience, River Island has been trialling fitting-room technology featuring RFID which ensures the cubicle “knows” what products customers have taken into the room.

The fitting room is equipped with a tablet which customers can use to, for example, order the garment they have taken to the room in a different size – that request is sent to one of the floor staff’s Samsung Galaxy device to fulfil.

Cooper says: “Having modern technology that allows for push notifications in the hands of our store workers indirectly impacts the experience our customers have as well.”

As digital has become a bigger part of people’s lives, customer expectation has shifted. Where people used to either shop in stores or online, now they expect a seamless connection between the two, and stores are taking on a different meaning than before.

As retailers try and adapt to this, there are now many different ways people can shop in modern stores, including a mixture of the digital and the physical, but Cooper says the traditional queue and till option still has a place – when looking into River Island data, around 30% of transactions still go through the “traditional desk and service” route.

He explains: “I think you need to cater for everybody. And as much as there's huge technological advances around self checkouts about clienteling and different ways of self serving we have in store, there is always going to be a need for a physical location where someone can come and talk to our staff and talk to our team with a problem they may have or just general advice.”

Future plans include further bridging of the gap between physical and digital with the aim of providing whatever experience the customer wants.

“Whether you start checking out on online at home with your basket on the app, and then actually go, ‘You know what? I don’t want to check out here, I want to go and get the bits’ - having a real-time stock position to be able to then go into store and not start a new transaction, but just finish [the] transaction or transfer the transaction to one of the store staff. That's really powerful when it comes down to blending touch points with our customer base and how that can actually work.”

Overall, giving store staff their own Samsung devices equipped with Scandit and Teams has meant more than just stock checking – many tasks are now handled on these devices, and ease of use means staff members are happier and more efficient.

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