It's been eight years since Phase Eight introduced its first transactional website to consumers and in that time CEO, Ben Barnett, has seen a considerable amount of change within his fashion retail business.

"When I joined the board in January 2007, we didn't have a website and IT was there to support the stores," explains Barnett. "Now eCommerce accounts for more than 25% of the total business and therefore the decisions we take in relation to eCommerce and the platform are now critically important."

Barnett points to the pace of technology change over the last decade, including faster internet connections and the ubiquity of mobile devices.

"And on top of that, we've also got orders placed on iPads in store, as well as orders placed online and collected in store," he says. "It's fundamentally a different proposition running a store today than eight years ago, but we've constantly been positively surprised by the online initiatives we've put in place."

He notes Phase Eight is lucky to have shareholders who have "big pockets" and are comfortable investing in technology. At the beginning of 2015, Phase Eight was bought by the South African Foschini Group, and this parent company only last month added UK fashion retailer Whistles to its portfolio.

Barnett says The Foschini Group are at the forefront of technology investment in South Africa – a region which culturally has many challenges with power and bandwidth. "It's like chalk and cheese to the UK," adds Barnett. "Just look at the web sales proportion compared to South Africa, and the UK is 50 times more."

But The Foschini Group treats the UK like a technology testing ground and is supportive of Phase Eight's developments which may significantly affect its South African business 5-10 years down the line.

International expansion

Partly down to its new owners, Phase Eight has been rapidly expanding internationally over the last few years, bringing its UK store count up to 109, with 259 concessions and another 170 points of sales internationally. But Barnett says while international growth is very positive with international development now accounting for more than 20% of the group's top line. But according to Barnett eCommerce growth abroad is lagging behind.

"All retailers hope the international market will grow to as big a segment online as the UK, but that's not necessarily going to happen and no one knows the answer to that," he says, suggesting technological restrictions in certain countries which prevent eCommerce growth across the globe.

"We'll take £35 million outside the UK this year, but eCommerce could be potentially less than 10%."

Technology innovations

One of Phase Eight's most recent eCommerce innovations is the introduction of a stock management tool which allows UK stores to fulfil online orders and dramatically reduce unsold stock. Using Devatics' OneStock solution, Phase Eight has an almost real-time visibility of stock and is able to fulfil online orders from store when its distribution centre is out of stock. Barnett predicts this will add around £9 million of incremental sales over the year and he could not talk more highly of the solution.

"There are lots of fun technical things out there, but stock availability moves the bottom line more than anything else," says Barnett. "It makes sure you have the product there for customers to buy. It also increases the proportion of products selling at full price."

While Phase Eight now has full visibility of its stock, creating a single view of customers is much more challenge.

"We're increasingly doing bits and pieces to get a better view of our customers, but it is very challenging because of PCI compliance and customers having multiple email addresses and credit cards."

Barnett says the days are gone where retailers could track customer spending on their one main credit card. And while having a single view of customers is valuable and Phase Eight is striving to do so, he is not sure if the retailer will ever find a perfect solution to this problem.

"We're not there and I'd be surprised if we ever do [have a single view of customers]."

Barnett insists customers having complete visibility of stock is the winner. "You can be in John O'Groats, order and item which is in stock in Truro and request to have it delivered to Shropshire to pick up in store," he explains. "And the store staff fulfilling the order hit a button, an automated label prints out and a courier is requested – this is lightyears more straightforward for the store staff to operate."

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