CIO interview: Martin Draper, technology director, Liberty

Luxury department store is using IT to support brand growth and is looking at the potential of using virtual and augmented reality in-store

Talking face-to-face with Martin Draper, technology director at Liberty, is like being given the opportunity to peek behind the curtain of a British institution. The world-famous department store is renowned for its sense of tradition, yet Draper is keen to use digital technology to fuse heritage with innovation. 

Draper explains his plans for transformation to Computer Weekly in his office, just a short walk from the Liberty store near London’s Regent Street. He joined the firm in March last year, initially on an interim basis and then permanently three months later. Draper, who also spent a decade running his own business intelligence consultancy, preceded his role at Liberty with a 13-year IT leadership stint at Harrods.  

“I am really enjoying it,” he says. “When I left Harrods, I thought about what I wanted to do, as opposed to what I could do – and what I ended up doing was going back into luxury retailing. The Liberty brand is incredibly well known and our aim, as a business, is to take that brand beyond Regent Street. The opportunity is very exciting.” 

Draper’s key IT leadership priority since joining the firm has been going back to basics. “We had some challenges in our back-end systems and we had to focus on the core elements of retail technology,” he says, looking back on his achievements from his first year at Liberty. 

Such systems cover a range of core challenges, including warehousing, inventory, stock management and visibility. “Retailers often invest – at best – in steady state processes,” he says. “That infrastructure gets tested now by high-pressure situations, such as Christmas or Black Friday sales. My job in the past year has been to build the right foundations.” 

Draper has also helped roll out a new e-commerce platform from Demandware across the business. It has been a busy 12 months, but the good news is that the foundation-building stage has progressed well. Now Draper is looking at other areas of development. 

“My executive team is ambitious when it comes to thinking about what happens next,” he says. “We came out with strong foundational elements last year, but the momentum in retail continues to build. The fast pace of change is one of the things that characterises the industry – and that’s what I’m turning to now.”

Data-driven culture

Draper’s big priority for the next year or so will be management information. He says retailers spend a lot of time gathering information and fail to focus on the insight that will help executives to develop business strategy. Draper is keen to change that approach and wants to build a data-driven culture at Liberty. 

“There is a great opportunity for me here because it’s pretty much a greenfield site,” he says. “I want to use platforms, tools and processes to take some of the guesswork out of modern-day retailing. I want to help make sure our talent focuses on the right business areas and supports better decision-making.” 

The key, says Draper, is to focus on the fundamentals of business intelligence (BI). He says the construction of the data warehouse will be important, but other areas are just as crucial.  

“Successful BI is all about understanding where your organisation can gain the most benefits,” he says. “BI is a cultural approach, not a technology project. To make the benefits real, you need to have the right capability in your organisation to generate insight. What is great is that the rest of our executive team recognises that insight generation should be a core focus too.” 

Small data

Draper says work on the BI initiative will not be distracted by concerns associated with the often over-hyped nature of big data. Modern BI concepts and techniques, including big data, data science and machine learning, must have a place in a BI strategy, he says. However, he is also eager to help employees around the firm understand what type of information the business already holds and how Liberty can make the most of what he refers to as small data.  

“Let’s not run before we can walk,” says Draper. “Let’s build a programme that doesn’t necessarily have any boundaries, but which starts from a core foundation. We have a strong loyalty programme when it comes to customer relationship management. We also have two enterprise resource planning systems that hold lots of information. What we need to do is start using that information to help create consistent decision-making.” 

That management focus does not currently require a focus on data science, says Draper. However, his longer-term aims do include a more nuanced approach to knowledge that could draw on the skills of data scientists. For now, he and his team are concentrating on improving decision-making processes across the organisation.

“We are more than just a traditional retailer – our business is also about theatre and I’m sure advanced technology can help us create an exciting proposition”
Martin Draper, Liberty

“That could mean anything, from what products to buy and sell, or potential improvements to signage around the store,” he says. “If we’re going to, for example, spend a lot of time building an international delivery proposition for our e-commerce site, then we need to understand the demographics of the people we intend to ship to. 

“We have got to help our innovative people to prioritise on the right business areas. We are not a huge IT organisation and we can’t afford to have 25 plates spinning simultaneously. What we need to do is work out the five or six areas that will be key to our growth. Working closely with our data and our line-of-business colleagues will help us to prioritise.” 

Brand growth

When it comes to priorities, Draper also draws attention to the need for IT to support brand growth. That backing could encompass work in several business areas, such as fabric printing and gifting. Draper expects his team to make full use of some of his earlier developments, including the Demandware e-commerce platform

“We want to build something that meets our customers’ expectations in terms of fulfilment and delivery,” he says. The e-commerce platform runs across desktop and mobile, and Draper says one of his firm’s main concerns this year will be to support back-end fulfilment, so more of the retailer’s catalogue is available online. 

“We need to create an effective balance between offline and online commerce,” he says. “I am vehemently against the idea that you create separate digital and non-digital strategies. Our customers shop across all channels and we need to recognise the crucial role that our stores play, and we also need to think about how that might change in the future. 

“Our store is world-famous and will always form a key element of our approach. What we need to continue to think about is how our physical presence allows us to make the most of other online elements, such as click and collect. Luxury retailers can’t afford to view offline and online as two separate strategies.” 

Joined-up approach

Draper is therefore keen to create a joined-up approach to digital retailing. He aims to push this higher level of integration through the next 12 to 24 months and has a clear idea of what personal success will look like in two years’ time. 

“We’d be spending less time gathering data and more time developing insight that helps the rest of the business work out where it’s going to go next,” he says. “We will continue to keep an eye on our foundation, particularly when it comes to wholesaling and some key business process and technology concerns.” 

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Yet operations are not Draper’s only concern. Like all modern CIOs, he is keen to spend less time in the datacentre and more time engaging with his business peers. The end game, he says, is to try to push creativity across as many areas as possible. 

“I’d love to deliver something really innovative,” he says. “That might include developments around the loyalty programme, such as digital wallets and enhanced customer experiences. I’d also like to look at something bleeding edge. I’m already talking to some interesting people about how augmented reality and virtual reality might be used in our department store. 

“We are more than just a traditional retailer – our business is also about theatre and I’m sure advanced technology can help us create an exciting proposition. That is something we need to explore a lot more. I’d really like to up the ante in terms of how the business can use connected technology to improve the customer experience.” 

All things digital

The broad sweep of upcoming activities at Liberty means Draper will play a key role in the future development of the business. He believes the focus on all things digital is good news for CIOs in general, but warns other technology leaders not to be complacent. 

“If I wasn’t confident that the role of CIO couldn’t improve retailing, then I’d go and do something else,” he says. “What gets me out bed in the morning isn’t the thought of the technology, it’s actually the thought of technology enablement.” 

Draper believes there are significant opportunities to push transformation in his sector. He thinks retailing often lags other sectors when it comes to using the CIO as a strategic, commercial partner. Draper says retail IT leaders are often key delivery and support partners, but that is not enough – and it is a perception that must change.   

“Successful firms in all sectors have people who understand technology at the very top of the organisation,” he says. “They help develop the right messaging and culture across the rest of the business. If you don’t have that senior-level understanding, then IT will continue to be seen as a necessary evil.

“I am fortunate because Liberty understands how I can contribute to business change. The CIO has to own the information assets – and, when that happens, IT leaders can work with their c-suite peers to change the business for the better.”

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