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CIO interview: Simon Kerry, Charles Tyrwhitt

CIO of men's clothing retailer Charles Tyrwhitt talks omni-channel and discusses the firm’s move away from a bespoke e-commerce system to the Demandware platform

There are advantages to both building in-house systems and outsourcing, essentially surrounding the level of customisation, difficulty of installing updates and the number of IT staff needed.

CIO of retailer Charles Tyrwhitt explains how the men’s smart wear seller made the move from a fully in-house system to the Demandware e-commerce platform.

The retailer’s web platform had been operating as a bespoke system since 1998, but Kerry realised this would not be scalable in the increasingly omni-channel world.

So, the retailer finally took the decision to move its web offering onto Demandware’s platform.

“Having been developing ourselves and trading online since the late 1990s, we knew a lot about what we wanted,” says Kerry, “so we were able to document that in a lot of detail and go through a six-month selection process.”

Implementing a Demandware web platform

After updating its enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, the retailer started to improve its web platform in 2014 and, after comparing Demandware and Hybris, chose the Demandware platform due to the already wide range of apparel customers it serves.

The retailer chose Javelin as its development partner, to help design the testing process and help the integration of back-end systems with the new retail platform.

“We weren’t sure we had the right skillsets to employ another 25 to 30 people to rebuild the whole site, so we decided to work with a partner,” says Kerry.

The new e-commerce platform went live in January 2016 on all of Charles Tyrwhitt’s core territories at the same time, and Kerry admits the firm was surprised it went without a single hitch, something relatively “unheard of on a web re-platform”.

Rather than having to spend time fixing bugs, the firm was able to move straight to thinking about what new features to introduce, says Kerry. He puts its success down the “hard work and commitment” of the in-house team, the development partner and Demandware.

Finding the skills for the new way of working

“We were originally on a Microsoft platform, and when we said we were going to re-platform to Demandware we saw a number of our pro-Microsoft developers leave,” says Kerry.

To cater to those who wanted to stay and be part of the re-platforming process, the company set out on a reskilling process, where some developers were brought in, while other in-house Java experts were trained on how to develop for the Demandware platform.

“That retraining exercise has been very successful, as finding Demandware developers is nigh on impossible and they have high day rates,” he says.

When Kerry joined Charles Tyrwhitt four years ago, the IT team consisted of only 15 people. However, in trying to develop and grow the team, Kerry admits “getting good people is difficult”, especially when trying to find IT people with interpersonal skills.

“Now IT is involved in everything we do as a business and as a principle I won’t employ anyone in our department who’s not comfortable having a conversation with people from other areas of the business,” he says.

“That’s made the recruitment process much harder, especially when it comes to developers, who can be quite introverted. It takes us a long time to recruit, but it means the whole department is very engaged with the business,” he adds.

The current omni-channel environment

Many retailers are now focused on providing a more joined-up customer experience as consumers begin to hop between channels.

However, Kerry says the type of customers Charles Tyrwhitt caters to don’t tend to deviate between online and offline.

“Bricks and mortar makes up about 30% of our business in turnover terms, and we don’t find a huge amount of crossover between the two,” says Kerry.

Charles Tyrwhitt has also found that its target audience is often reluctant to return items.

“There’s a big upside of to selling to men. They’re creatures of habit, and tend to buy the same thing over and over again. So, once someone knows their size, it’s very easy to then order more shirts,” says Kerry.

Read more about omni-channel retail

  • A Retail Business Technology Expo panel liken the current omni-channel movement to the dial-up stage of internet connectivity.
  • Head of online operations development at Sainsbury’s, Dave Crellin, says retail channels are growing so fast customers don’t know what they want.

“Men are also very bad at returning things, so our return rate is low,” he says. “If something doesn’t quite fit, they’ll tend to buy it in a different size next time.”

This is the opposite of most retailers with an online presence, who, according to Kerry, usually have customers order three of the same product in different sizes with the intention of making a return.

But despite differences in customer behaviour, Charles Tyrwhitt has a single customer view due to the data collected from buyers when making a purchase on any channel.

“We are probably one of the very few true omni-channel businesses that exist,” says Kerry. “I can tell you what shirt one of our customers bought nine years ago, and through what channel.”

As soon as a customer buys something online or in-store, other departments have transaction visibility, as customers are always asked for their name, home address and email address. This allows Charles Tyrwhitt to target audiences more easily during marketing campaigns as they have an entire purchase history.

“Customer data capture has been critical for us,” he concludes.

Read more on IT for retail and logistics

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