Clarks steps up modernisation

Clarks is one of the UK’s most iconic brands. The retailer sold nearly 48 million pairs of shoes in In 2017/18, and has more than 500 stores in the UK and Ireland and nearly a thousand in the United States, Asia and mainland Europe.

However, in recent years growth at the Somerset-based business has stumbled, with sales falling from £1.6 billion to just over £1.5 billion in the year ending January 2018.

Last year it unveiled a turnaround plan – and not surprisingly IT transformation was a key part of its strategy. As well a focus on improving the front end, it is also modernising its back end to become more agile.

“Inevitably, like a lot of companies that have been around for nearly 200 years, we have some of our own legacy,” Guy Mason, CIO at the business, tells Essential Retail.

Part of that modernisation plan includes the aim of gaining a real-time view of its inventory. That is no small task considering its distribution centre for the UK and the EU ships on average 75,000 pairs of shoes per day.

Clarks decided to use a solution from software business MuleSoft to make its supply chain more efficient, and has signed up MuleSoft partner Whishworks to design and integrate the application suite.

The business is replacing its systems' point-to-point interfaces with a layer of middleware, which means it will be able to make changes more quickly.

The right fit

Under the new system, it won’t have to wait for an overnight batch run to get a true view of stock level.

That will improve stock availability for the customer, irrespective of the channel they are buying from. “There’s nothing more frustrating than going on a website, finding a pair of shoes that you like, and then discovering that they are out of stock,” says Mason.

It will also mean lower levels of stock in the supply chain. “At the end of season, we should have less stock that we have to discount or sell through outlet channels because it hasn’t sold, and that’s because we’ll have a much more accurate understanding of what stock we need.”

Clarks’ overall transformation plan is significant. The business noted an “historic under-investment in IT systems” in its last published annual report. “To give some idea of the scale of the challenge that lies ahead on IT, our current expectation is it will take five years to complete the transition to a modern, fully competitive IT platform,” it added.

But if Mason were using a clean sheet of paper, would he still opt for using a middleware approach?

“I think the answer is we would. It has a real benefit in dealing with legacy, but unless you were to take one solution from one provider to do everything, you are in the world of connecting disparate systems and that is what it is aimed at.”

He believes this programme will place the shoe-seller on a good footing for the future.

“Like a lot of global retailers, we are modernising technology to deliver change that is coming. It’s not changing the things that are already here, like omnichannel, but also the changing trends in shopping."

Mason used the example of personalisation which will drive retail strategies going forward. "[We need to] make ourselves relevant to customers, who are increasingly consuming information about us online rather than in stores.”