Hunkemöller initially struggled to keep up with the fast pace of omnichannel, but the lingerie retailer made a number of technical and attitude changes in order to improve customer experience both in store and online.

Ben Hawksley, director of merchandise and planning at Hunkemöller International BV, described a number of lessons its buying and merchandising department learnt as it adopted omnichannel retail.

Firstly, he said everyone who works in retail now has to be much more agile.

"We used to treat online as another store," he said. "We had flagship stores in Amsterdam taking more money than online only three years ago. How that has changed now."

The retailer has 209 stores in the Netherlands, where its brand awareness is 98% - the same as Marks & Spencer in the UK. It is also the number one lingerie retailer in Belgium with 105 stores, another 238 stores in Germany, as well as a presence in Denmark and Scandinavia.

Speaking at the Buying & Merchandising Summit in London last week, Hawksley said it is difficult for buyers and merchandisers to adopt to the fast pace of digital. "We strongly believe in in-house design, but to add further complexity, there is a one year lead time for a bra – how on earth do we react to omnichannel challenges?"

Hawksley described how Hunkemöller had a significant swimwear launch this summer, kicking off with a TV campaign on a Saturday evening and a soft launch on Facebook and Twitter the Tuesday before.

He said by the lunchtime of the Tuesday, the retailer had already sold 5% of its stock online. "We only planned to do that online in eight weeks – we hadn't even launched the main primetime advert. Our merchandisers in swimwear had a tough week because we sold product through the night – this was all new to us."

Hawksley said the retailer used this as an opportunity to stand back and consider the effect of eCommerce. "We understand this is now the way forward – a TV ad usually takes a week to kick-in, but a week before launch and we sell 5% of the collection."

High street retailing

"Everyone said the high street is dead, but we continued to open stores," said Hawksley. "We did have a decline [in store sales], so we invested in eCommerce as well. This was a good decision, because now those two are becoming more joined up.

"But we continued to treat eCommerce as another store – one of 600," he added. "And the speed of omnichannel took us by surprise."

He explained how omnichannel has also increased complexity for its store estate. After introducing click & collect, Hunkemöller thought this would only be about 3-5% of store efforts – "'they'll cope', we thought".

But over six months, a third of all web transactions were fulfilled via click & collect.

"Merchandisers like time to build up a picture – this is scary stuff," he added. "Never be fooled that you've cracked it in omnichannel retail."

People investment

Hunkemöller made the decision to invest in its people, including the merchandising department, so the retailer could react quicker to launches and cope with online-only orders – the retailer has 3,200 fashion ranges of lingerie and an increased number of online options. It also looked at its replenishment system to make sure it was as flexible as possible.

"When I first joined in 2009, eCommerce was seen as a dirty word, as an irritation to do things outside the normal process. But the culture changed in the business from a senior level," said Hawksley. "If anyone is to have success in omnichannel there needs to be real focus from the CEO-down to make sure everyone sees its importance in their everyday lives.

"We attacked legacy systems, but before investing heavily, it was about getting the processes from humans."

Hawksley said retailers often view omnichannel as a "NASA-level computer which sees everything, everywhere", but the staff managing those systems are not all going to be IT professionals.

"We tried to build sales culture, not IT culture," he said.