Fortnum & Mason (F&M) is a 308-year-old business, but it is the last 24 months that have seen the organisation significantly change the way it operates.

Having only run one store – its flagship site in London's Piccadilly – for three centuries, the retailer has recently opened at Heathrow Terminal 5 and London St Pancras station, as well as unveiling a franchised store in Dubai. At a time of huge change and growth for the business, its eCommerce operation has also become a central marketing platform in terms of presenting its offering to a global audience.

That particular digital journey reached a landmark earlier this year when a new responsive website was launched. Customer experience director Zia Zareem-Slade, who was responsible for delivering Selfridges' digital strategy before joining the F&M board two years ago, led the re-launch but she told Essential Retail this week that it was the retailer's customers who helped drive the development of the new online site.

"We've all heard the horror stories. I've been doing this a long time and I was keen to avoid any problems and make sure there were no shocks for our customers," she explained.

"We're very fortunate that F&M customers are exceptionally willing to talk to us; who doesn't like a nice conversation?! We built the new site on different devices, and at the appropriate time customers came into the shop to give us their feedback."

Zareem-Slade said that a key moment in the company's user testing cycle was around the design of the checkout, where for a number of reasons it had experienced problems with basket abandonment rates. There were conflicting opinions within the organisation as to why this was happening and what was the best way to solve it: was a typical dropdown menu the answer or a more tabulated design?

"We were 50-50 on this matter, so to take out the debate our developers went into our store in Piccadilly and spoke to customers. Without doubt, they went for the tabulated option, so we've put that live.

"You can spend a lot of time pontificating about what users want and what they'll try to do, but actually the quickest and most effective route through the conversation and in terms of our whole approach to designing a website was to build up options and let the customer tell us what they wanted. It was hugely well received and customers liked being engaged and asked their opinions."

Fortnum & Mason's new website was officially launched this year

Most of the other retailers this publication has spoken to over the last two years have deployed their heads of eCommerce or multichannel directors to launch and re-launch transactional websites, but it appears the relatively newly-established retail position of customer experience director and similar job titles are rising to prominence.

House of Fraser's multichannel boss Andy Harding, for example was recently appointed chief customer officer of the UK-based department store chain, in acknowledgement of the growing importance for retailers to track fast-changing shopper behaviour that is shaped by the digital revolution in everyday life.

Having a head of customer experience who looks at implementation of major projects such as new website launches would appear to ensure a retailer is thinking from their shoppers' point of view when investing in the future. But not all companies seem to be able to go through this process.

"Lots of retailers have the best intentions but things can get lost in big programmes if you have a difficult stakeholder matrix and complicated project milestones and timelines to go through," Zareem-Slade remarked.

"We were in the fortunate position that I was the key stakeholder from a F&M perspective and the design and development was [technology partner] Red Badger's remit. We were able to be a bit more nimble and decisive."

Roles centred on customer experience are "more and more" part of the make-up of boardrooms, she added. And as is the case with Zareem-Slade, who led Selfridges' online operation, the customer experience roles are being taken by professionals who have grown up focused on multichannel from the onset of their careers.

"I've had to spend the best part of my career understanding how consumers are behaving and what new technologies are in and how they are getting used. I'm able to look at the bricks environment and understand the appropriate ways of deploying tech in-store or utilising it to market to customers in a different way."

The new F&M website itself was made available to use before Christmas last year as the company went through the testing process with some of its key customers, but it was officially launched this spring when the previous platform was shut down. In terms of innovations and design, there are a number of new technologies that the retailer hopes will boost customers' online experience.

Responsive design to ensure the website operates efficiently depending on whether it is accessed by shoppers via PC, tablet or smartphone was a major part of the development brief, and the new portal runs on an open source eCommerce platform using Spree Commerce and Facebook’s React.

Cain Ullah, the CEO of Red Badger which developed the site, said a growing number of retailers are going to make use of Facebook's React software as they look to optimise their websites and mobile offerings. Only around one year old, the software is isomorphic in nature, meaning every webpage can be single page application and can be generated on the client and the server.

It effectively means that React can support a much wider proliferation of devices than previous front-end frameworks, and Ullah said his colleagues have described it as "the most exciting thing that's happened in web tech for ten years".

Zareem-Slade said: "The guys didn't talk about Facebook React because it was the new cool thing, which is what often happens when developers talk about new projects; they were as focused as I was on developing a responsive platform that was able to meet our customers' needs.

"The appropriate technology was selected and it just so happens that the appropriate technology is also the very latest. It's an important point for people sitting in retail organisations who are saying 'why do IT keep trying to sell me this thing'. You need your IT function to be as customer focused as you are."

The Fortnum's website was launched to solve a number of challenges the retailer had previously faced, and Zareem-Slade acknowledged that running a successful website requires continued amendments and tweaks to meet the evolving demands of consumers.

Changes made around checkout have reportedly resulted in a 20% reduction in basket abandonment, compared to the previous website, while mobile site conversions are said to have improved by 57%.With eCommerce sales at Fortnum & Mason up 25% last year to represent 17% of total sales, it was a natural focus area for the company in the last 12 months, but other tech projects are on the horizon. On that to-do list is a revamp of supply chain operations and the introduction of new till points across the retail estate that is hoped will help move the business towards the "utopia" of gaining a single view of its customers no matter what channel they shop on. The new tills will also allow staff to arrange international delivery from every in-store point of sale.

With changes and investments to be made to retain and attract customers, senior management at the department store retailer will be keen to ensure the company remains profitable. Profit before tax for the 12 months to July 2014 rose £2 million year on year to £3.8 million off the back of £74.4 million in sales, which was a 14% increase on 2012/13.

Zareem-Slade commented: "Fortnum's has always innovated and always responded to customers' needs. It's always been a service-orientated business, therefore the proliferation of services demanded by customers through technology is no different.

"It is inherent in who we are; we have to meet those demands. As we continue a really interesting part of our journey where we have opened a number of shops, supplementing eCommerce with a clear strategy around shops is what will keep us profitable."

Click below for more information:

Fortnum & Mason

Red Badger