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Big interview: Monsoon Accessorize IT director John Bovill

Monsoon-Accessorize CEO John Browett arrived at the company in 2013 after a difficult year for the fashion business, but he said recently that he was joining an organisation containing some "fantastic" creative teams and a group eager to embrace change.

Referencing a company with the ability to produce highly saleable garments but with problems on the more operational side of retail, the former Dixons boss and head of retail at Apple said he was "trying to bring [to the company] the things they don't know how to do well".

Since taking the helm at Monsoon-Accessorize in March 2013, Browett – alongside some senior recruits – has started a period of transformation that saw the retailer return to profit last year while embarking on a new multichannel journey that looks set to follow a particularly mobile tech direction over the coming years.

One of his first moves as CEO was to bring in Jacques Vert's commercial director John Bovill, who was previously CIO at Aurora Fashions, to lead the IT and eCommerce side of the business. Speaking to Essential Retail this week, Bovill suggested it was a case of so far, so good as the team aims to create a modern, relevant high street fashion retailer.

"There's a long way to go, but I think we're making very positive steps," he explained.

"Customers tell us that, and that's what matters at the end of day."

One of the central pillars of the evolution is mobile technology, which Bovill sees as a key driver of the modern Monsoon-Accessorize. Mobile within the business has a number of guises, though, including tablet devices for assisted selling in-store, a mobile-optimised website and mobility in the form of more trading space on the shop floor.

In time, this mobile approach also looks set to cover payments – with Bovill suggesting "it's definitely the future" and predicting it will arrive "sooner than people recognise" once the payments industry infrastructure is in place. For now, though, the mobilisation of both the Monsoon and Accessorize brands revolves around the point of sale.

Earlier this year, the company launched an application with Micros that connects the web with point of sale. The solution, known as Monsoon Accessorize Extended, allows store staff to use iPads to engage with customers, locate stock wherever it is in the supply chain and actually process transactions using a wireless Chip and PIN device.

Explaining the tool's function, Bovill said: "You come into store, and there'll be an Apple device – that's what everyone uses, so why use another device?

"It facilitates a conversation and drives incremental sales and we'll use it to really assist the customer in buying whatever may be in our supply chain. Whether the products are in-store, on our website, in another store, we'll use it to make that transaction and we can deal with all of that in one basket."

Having initially been trialled in the company's Cardinal Place store in London's Victoria Street, the roll-out across the property portfolio has begun – with Bovill saying 7-10% of sales made in a store environment are currently conducted through these tablets.

Some 60% of the people using the retailer's in-store tablet devices opt for click & collect transactions, and Bovill says that approximately 30% of those customers make another transaction when they come in to pick up their order.

Maximising upselling opportunities is high on the retailer's agenda, with product recommendations set to be placed on the in-store tablets to aid sales assistants and provide fashion inspiration for the customer during the purchase journey.

"You get product recommendations on our main website, but we're actually going to put that on our tablet devices because often this can help the customer and the sales assistant better understand our full range," Bovill noted.

"It helps us because we increase sales but it helps the customer because it provides a better service, which is ultimately what retail is all about."

Mobile point of sale tools are not set to completely replace till points at Monsoon's stores, but the wheels have been set in motion to reduce the number of sales desks in Accessorize outlets. Accessorize stores in London's Liverpool Street, Wimbledon and Brighton no longer have cash desks, with the retailer placing payment points on fixtures among the products as a way of increasing selling space.

Bovill said: "What I see in the future is that we'll have fewer cash desks, which will expand the selling space through increased mobility. That in itself – if you think about the benefit of that as a retailer – is significant.

"Tablets are great for service, but this is a real win. Every time we're looking at new Accessorize formats, they will not have cash desks. Longer term in Monsoon, once we get the tablets rolled out, we'll be looking to rationalise till points here, as well."

Monsoon-Accessorize CEO Browett and the new boss of the combined Dixons-Carphone Warhouse business, Seb James, are among the UK retail leaders that envisage a future high street that plays a more consultative role in the purchase journey. They see the store as a place where customers can receive advice and guidance on a product, before many of them head off and buy the item online or via mobile.

With footfall on UK high streets below the level it was pre-recession, retailers with extensive town centre store portfolios like Monsoon-Accessorize, which operates around 300 shops, will need to ensure they merge the boundaries between online and physical retailing.

Online is not completely cannibalising the high street, according to Bovill, but he does see the importance of rationalising store estates and "making the space you have got work harder for you".

"There's an element of browsing in stores with conversions on a mobile or desktop device of some kind, but I don't think we should ignore the other way around, where people browse online and go in-store," he argued.

"We see by 2017 that approximately 50% of purchases will come directly from our website or be influenced by the internet before a customer has even touched our brand on the high street. We're saying we need to think '50:50' by 2017."

Reaching that target will inevitably involve closing down some stores over the coming months, with the organisation planning to reduce Monsoon standalones but increase Accessorize standalones and create a greater number of stores where the brands are combined. Further digital development is also in the pipeline, with Bovill admitting that the recent growth of its eCommerce sales is partly due to the business playing catch-up with its rivals.

The retailer's online sales of womenswear make up 15% of total revenue, which is slightly below the 17% fashion average, although the business's e-tail penetration is apparently above average when it comes to selling childrenswear.

Bovill acknowledges Monsoon-Accessorize is also playing catch up in a number of other areas – the company does not yet have a mobile app, for example – but he is confident in CEO Browett's philosophy and supports the direction the business is headed.

"He knows digital, he gets digital and I couldn't be luckier – I've got a boss who is leading the business but, secondly, he has run my areas in a number of other organisations," the IT director explained.

"We couldn't be in a better place to help our brand and our customer – it's all about taking the customer on the journey with us, staying relevant and delivering what consumers want."

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