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CEO interview: Watch Shop's Robin Phillips talks retail technology

Robin Phillips, new CEO of Watch Shop
Robin Phillips, new CEO of Watch Shop

Around a decade ago, as eCommerce truly began pulling at the foundations and disrupting the structure of the traditional store-led retail industry, there was a lot of talk about heads of online retail positioning themselves as the next generation of CEOs.

The feeling was they had the skills required for retail's future and therefore it was only a matter of time before the new guard took over and a digital-from-the-top mentality filtered down in retail organisations across sectors.

But it hasn’t really happened yet. There have been former eCommerce leads that have found themselves in the retail hotseat in recent years, but the fact one of UK retailing’s current success stories, Boohoo, is currently being led by former Primark COO and experienced store retailing executive John Lyttle tells its own story.

It takes more than digital expertise to run a retail business in the 21st century.

One man who has carved out a successful route from digital boss to CEO is Robin Phillips. The former Waitrose director of eCommerce, Boots director of omnichannel, and Kurt Geiger digital lead is now CEO of Watch Shop. And he acknowledges it’s a role that relies on a multifaceted skillset.

“The reason I can function as CEO is because I’ve done other things besides digital,” he tells Essential Retail.

“I was a finance director in the venture capital world for years and I fundamentally understand the economics of business which I think is extremely important in areas like digital. Some brands have thrown money at it without looking at what the return is going to be.”

Early career stints at Diageo and John Lewis Partnership gave Phillips what he describes as an understanding of the importance of data and insights. At John Lewis he oversaw the customer database and insights team, which involved “looking at the strategy for the business through the lens of the customer data”.

It is with this background and with the more recent experience of heading up digital functions at some of the largest UK retailers that Phillip now finds himself presiding over Watch Shop and sister brand Watch Hut. He believes his career to date helps him cut through traditional internal arguments retailers have, such as whether eCommerce should sit with the marketing department or if digital needs its own leader.

He describes the digital director phenomenon as a “transitional phase”, until all organisations ultimately have a digital mindset.

“I haven’t got a digital director because I don’t need one,” he adds.

“I have heads of marketing, technology, and buying and merchandising, and an operations director. They are all digital – we all do digital.”

Retail technology roadmap                                   

How is this mindset and set-up impacting business strategy at Watch Shop? With quite significant consequences, it seems.

This month Watch Shop unveiled its new website – it is the first time the company has operated a mobile-first online retail operation, and it brings to market several new tactics and technologies.

First, its ‘golden’ brand partners, which include Swarovski and Casio, each have their own dedicated sections that include bite-sized mobile-friendly content, embedded videos, main product ranges, and a ‘Shop the Look’ section which enables all products from one image to be added to the basket with a click of a button.

“We’re keen to coordinate everything across marketing, email and social – and there’s a consistent approach for each of our partner brands all the way through,” explains Phillips.

For the last three months, Openpay – an Australian company new to the UK – has been integrated on the website, allowing shoppers to pay for goods in instalments, supporting the buy now, pay later trend many other retailers have pursued to attract customers.

“Openpay has ambitious plans – we feel they will become the number one player in their market and therefore it’ll be a good move to go with them first,” notes Phillips.

The CEO also expects augmented reality (AR) to appear in the next iteration of website development, but is cautious about it slowing down what he describes as a “really fast” site.

“We have our own team and technology platform, and when you click through on videos they play instantly because the way we have integrated them,” says Phillips.

“Other mobile sites often struggle with this because they haven’t got the tech integration and knowhow we’ve got. I think you can expect to see some AR in the future but the most important thing is it doesn’t interrupt the customer journey or slow the site down.”

Phillips talks up his retailer’s tech prowess, and the company has – as Essential Retail reported this week – established a business-to-business (B2B) arm, white labelling its tech stack for third-party brands to use to run their own online retailing operations. The CEO is confident WS eCommerce Solutions, as it has been named, will be in demand.

“It’s a pipeline of new business I’m building,” Phillips says, adding that the systems and client support infrastructure is now in place internally, which will enable brands to take a blank version of Watch Shop or have the retailer create a bespoke eCommerce operation.

Watch Shop white label technology platform is helping third-party brands expand their eCommerce activities
Watch Shop white label technology platform is helping third-party brands expand their eCommerce activities

To build or to buy?

Watch Shop tends to not buy products from technology suppliers, instead opting to develop them in-house. That has been the case with its web platform and internal systems, with development led by head of technology, Dave Ellis, who Phillips describes as “a software builder” with a background in warehouse management systems.

“He understands architecture and how to develop, build and systemise, and we’ve augmented that with front-end capability so we’ve got an understanding of taking care of user experience, and how to bake that in to the website.”

Phillips notes that when Watch Shop has worked with vendors in the past, it has “used them and then retired them”. For example, the retailer previously worked with marketplace integrators and translation service providers, but it has now built these capabilities in-house.

The CEO describes the current period as a “transitional year”. Watch Shop was previously part of Aurum Holdings, which was renamed Watches of Switzerland group ahead of an IPO earlier this year.

In the build-up to IPO, Watch Shop was spun out of the main group to remain under the ownership of Aurum's main shareholder and private equity firm, Apollo Global Management. Phillips says the private equity owner backs Watch Shop’s dual strategy of providing a premium online platform for brands to showcase their top products and the expansion into B2B.

“We have had a clear boost from the new site, conversion has improved and we can see that our new way of promoting our gold brand partners is resulting in a disproportionately better performance,” he comments.

“The strategy is a viable one and is working for us.”

Private equity owner Apollo Global Managment will be hoping Phillips can use all of his experience to make Watch Shop's new strategy run like clockwork.