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CIO interview: Russell Harte, group technology director, DFS

The furniture store’s group head of IT speaks to Computer Weekly about how customer experience can be used internally

Russell Harte, group technology director at furniture retailer DFS, has been at the company for six years, and previously headed up multichannel strategy at Boots. “I came to DFS to help with the digital transformation, which started five-and-a-half years ago,” he says.

For Harte, “digital” means having the data in the right format and place to use it. He says historically, retailers have tended to look at data retrospectively. “One of the changes I am trying to make is introducing the use of data in real time to make better decisions.”

From a customer experience perspective, digital means being able to interact with customers across multiple channels.

“The pace of change over the past 10 years has been absolutely amazing and retail has changed quite considerably,” says Harte.

“Six or seven years ago, people were starting to talk about mobile as a channel,” he says. “Now, 50% of our traffic comes through mobile phones. Online has been the catalyst for retailers to try to use digital technologies to transform their business.”

The majority of UK retailers have a good grip on their online sales channel, but retailers face numerous challenges understanding how to interact with customers in the multichannel world. “There’s over six messaging apps people have on their phone,” says Harte. “As a retailer we need to understand how customers want to connect with us.”

One of the goals of the retailer’s digital initiative was to re-platform its online offering. “We previously used a bespoke agency platform,” he says. “We moved to IBM WebSphere and started a significant journey to transform our online customer experience.”

Internal processes changed by online revolution

As well as improving the digital customer experience, the online revolution has changed DFS’s internal processes. Harte believes the digital skills acquired from customer-facing digital projects can be used to help the organisation’s internal processes run more efficiently.

“The majority of UK retailers have legacy systems. We have taken what we’ve learnt from working online and begun spreading them across the organisation,” he says.

As such, DFS is looking to extend its customer-facing digital strategy to internal users. “We are taking UX [user experience] designers we’ve used online for many years to design our internal applications. We’ve taken training on our delivery scheduling system down from three weeks to 30 minutes,” says Harte. “It’s that straightforward, even I can do it.”

This makes a significant difference to staff engagement. “It’s about trying to make life as easy as possible for staff,” he adds.

Building a virtualised environment

The retailer runs a virtualised environment on VMware managed by Rackspace. It is currently in the process of acquiring Sofology, which also uses Rackspace. Harte believes – subject to Competitions and Market Authority approval – the deal could give the IT team a way to consolidate the Rackspace infrastructure of the two furniture brands.

“We were the first retailer to migrate to IBM WebSphere 8,” he says. “We started the project in February 2016, and went live that August with a brand new Rackspace infrastructure using new virtualised servers running VMware technology.” The infrastructure was fully operational in time for the retailer’s peak sales period during the build up to Christmas and Boxing Day sales.

The new infrastructure has enabled DFS to tweak systems to cope with peaks in demand. “We looked at the initial traffic and added extra CPUs [central processing units],” says Harte. “This is something I wouldn’t have done four years ago.”

“Data science helped us understand doorstep time. We now know how long to give the delivery workers based on the number of seats being delivered”

Russell Harte, DFS

Over the past few years, DFS has made increasing use of Amazon Web Services (AWS). “We are halfway through rolling out a delivery scheduling and optimisation project built from scratch on AWS, using a team of data scientists,” he says. “We have the ability to up the capacity on-demand in an instant, which is very attractive to us at certain times of the year.”

For Harte, the ability to work on this project with data scientists, along with IT firms such as VMware, has enabled the retailer to build the system that best meets its requirements.

DFS has worked with a data science firm called Satalia since February 2016. “We used data science to help us understand doorstep time,” says Harte. This is the time a delivery team takes from arrival at a customer’s home to having the furniture installed.

The dynamic optimisation available in the delivery scheduling enables DFS to understand how long each of its deliveries should take. “We now understand how much time to give the delivery workers based on the number of seats being delivered or the product type,” he says.

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The project went live in the first DFS distribution centre in August 2016. Over the next few weeks, the remaining 20 distribution centres will begin using the new delivery scheduling and optimisation system.

Over time, Harte hopes to move the management of DFS’s AWS environment into Rackspace, which he says could benefit from some of the new VMware technologies.

When asked about the potential risks of being locked into a particular technology stack, he says lock-in is a risk you need to be aware of, and the only way to avoid it is to ensure you have the flexibility to move.

“If you look at the cloud market, there are major suppliers investing an awful lot of money. I would expect this to continue over the next few years, but if we architect our applications correctly, we can potentially avoid that lock-in,” he says.

Moving more of the management to Rackspace would allow Harte to focus more on the business. “The reason I would bring the AWS environment under Rackspace’s control is to make life as easy as possible,” he says. “I want to focus on the business value and ensure the infrastructure works. This comes down to having the right technology partners.”

DFS is only beginning its multi-cloud journey. The retailer will need to go through all its applications, including the legacy ones, and decide whether to move them into the cloud or use a private one. “I’m currently looking at some of our DR [disaster recovery] approaches,” says Harte. “How can I use a multi-cloud approach to deliver better DR and reduce the cost associated with it?”

Technological advances in retail

Harte looks far and wide for most innovative uses of technology. “When it comes to retail innovation and customer journey, John Lewis always gets mentioned because it does some really good things. It is also hard to ignore Amazon,” he says.

“Furniture is very personal, and Ikea is an interesting organisation because of its size and scale – as well as how innovative it is with regards to technology,” says Harte. “However, I spend a lot of time looking at the car industry.”

Not only are cars expensive, but customers also tend to spend a lot of time thinking about the car they want to buy before making a purchase. “We have an open dialogue with car companies about their changing customer experience,” he says. “One thing we take from them is how our in-store sales teams now have the ability to interact with digital signage from their tablets.

“They can send images of the products in full HD quality to the large screens in store. This can be used if a customer can’t decide between a blue and a red sofa. It is an emotional connection.”

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